Schumer asks probe of plan to limit aid

Benefits would help former N-workers

By DOUGLAS TURNER

News Washington Bureau Chief

12/8/2006

WASHINGTON - Sen. Charles E. Schumer called for a probe on Thursday into a possible scheme involving the Bush White House and the Labor Department to unlawfully slash aid to Buffalo Niagara workers made sick by exposure to nuclear bomb components.

The General Accountability Office released a report Wednesday revealing that the Bush administration was planning an interagency task force to limit payments to former workers at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, Hooker Electrochemical in Niagara Falls, the West Valley Demonstration Project and other facilities.

A law passed in 2000 and signed by then-President Bill Clinton allowed up to $150,000 for workers - or survivors of workers - made ill from exposure to radiation while working on the post-World War II hydrogen bomb.

Schumer, D-N.Y., said he also knows of a confidential memorandum prepared Nov. 30 by Republican staffers on the House Judiciary Committee that refers to "a continuous stream of [administration] communications - strategizing on minimizing payouts."

Schumer said he wants the Labor Department's inspector general to investigate efforts by the White House Office of Management and Budget and the administration's officials in the Labor Department to curb payments after Congress had authorized them.

He also wrote to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao asking whether agencies twisted regulations to deny eligible workers or their survivors their money.

Only half the 700 workers or survivors of workers at Bethlehem Steel have received compensation from the federal aid program, said Edwin A. Walker, leader of the Bethlehem Steel Action Group, which advocates help for cancer-sufferers and survivors.

Walker said he was a member of a 15-man "hot spot" team that cleaned up spills at the Lackawanna plant during the 1950s. Thirteen members of the squad died of cancer. Walker also worked on a bar mill producing uranium bars; Walker said the company never told him the bars were radioactive.

Walker learned he handled uranium 18 years after the plant closed. Walker said he has bladder cancer, which is in remission.

"I am delighted at what Sen. Schumer is doing," Walker said.

Schumer said despite having one of the greatest concentrations of facilities involved in nuclear weapons production-related activities in the nation, "Western New York continues to be severely underserved by the [compensation] program.

"Workers at these facilities handled high levels of radioactive materials and were responsible for helping to create the huge nuclear arsenal that served as a deterrent to the Soviet Union during the Cold War," Schumer said.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said the GAO report "raises the prospect that the administration may have instructed officials to refrain from making too many workers eligible for compensation for fear of the cost.

"These workers are not statistics - they are the men and women who, by their efforts, helped America win the Cold War," Higgins said.

Higgins said he wrote to Bush last March asking that he order the Labor Department to give special consideration to victims and survivors. He also introduced legislation that would have created a special category for former Bethlehem workers.

"In both the administration and in the Republican-led Congress, our pleas fell on deaf ears," Higgins said.

Other facilities where workers handled radioactive material include Carborundum Co., Electro Metallurgical and Titanium Alloys in Niagara Falls; Lake Ontario Ordnance Works, Niagara County; Simonds Saw and Steel, Lockport; Bliss and Laughlin Steel, Linde Air Products and Utica St. Warehouse, Buffalo; and Linde Ceramics Plant, Seaway Industrial Park and Ashland Oil, Town of Tonawanda.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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