Schumer, Clinton urge re-evaluation of claims by ex-Bethlehem workers

By DOUGLAS TURNER

News Washington Bureau Chief

12/15/2004

WASHINGTON - New York's two senators called on the Bush administration Tuesday to re-examine its denial of benefits claims involving more than 900 workers at the former Bethlehem Steel plant who may have died or been made ill through exposure to weapons grade nuclear materials.

Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both Democrats, issued the request in response to the formal release of an audit by an advisory committee to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which found serious flaws in the agency's system of evaluating claims.

The report, completed two months ago, had been suppressed.

Frank J. Panasuk of Hamburg, a leader in efforts by former workers at the Lackawanna plant to win relief, had filed a freedom of information request for the committee's audit.

Although Congress has provided up to $150,000 in compensation for each Bethlehem worker or survivor, the agency, part of the Labor Department, had approved only 190 of 1,100 claims.

Another $135 million in potential benefits remains at stake.

Schumer said the report "proves what we have been saying all along - that there are gaping holes between the compensation Western New York nuclear workers have received and what they should be entitled to."

Schumer called the workers "Cold War heroes who have waited long enough to get their due compensation."

The Bethlehem Steel audit was conducted by the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health.

In her evaluation of the audit, Clinton said the chief flaws in the original denial of 900 claims include bad data on workers' exposure to contaminated air, use of the wrong statistical methods and other serious scientific miscues.

Clinton said the agency must move quickly to revise its profile for evaluating claims by workers and survivors.

"What is most frustrating," she said, "is that many of the issues raised in the audit have been repeatedly raised by Bethlehem Steel workers and their survivors."

As a result of earlier protests by the senators, as well as Reps. Jack Quinn Jr., R-Hamburg, and Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, the agency will hold a briefing on the report Jan. 12 in Buffalo for workers and their families.

"A lot depends on what happens at that meeting," Quinn said.

Bureau assistant Anna L. Miller contributed to this report.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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