The Buffalo News - WESTERN NEW YORK

So much loss, so little relief

The federal government says it wants to compensate people who got sick because they worked on nuclear weapons.

But good intentions haven't gotten the job done.

By HOLLY AUER and JOHN F. BONFATTI

News Staff Reporters

2/11/2002

 

Edward Pielecha's job at Bethlehem Steel Corp. put food on his family's table for almost four decades. It was good, reliable work that he was glad to have.

But 15 years after Pielecha's death, his family suspects the job may have killed him. And while there is no dollar figure that can be placed on his life, the government is saying it may pay his family members $150,000 if they can show that he died from the effects of radiation to which he was exposed on the job.

Pielecha's widow, Emily, recently filed a claim under a federal law designed to acknowledge the government's role in the illnesses and deaths of thousands of citizens while the United States established itself as the world's first nuclear superpower.

The program is set up to pay $150,000, plus additional benefits for medical treatments, to people who developed radioactivity-induced cancer after working at sites that contracted with the federal government for nuclear weapons work during World War II and the Cold War. If the worker has died, his family may receive the award.

Pielecha's only child, Cathy Pierowicz, remembers the soot-covered man who walked through the door of their home each night after a shift in front of the Lackawanna plant's coke ovens.

Radioactive cobalt was used in steel production until the late 1950s, and Pielecha had constant contact with the compound as he tended coke ovens.

Pierowicz recalls thinking, even as a child, that the noxious dust must have been seeping into his body. Pierowicz is sure her father understood the dangers of working in a steel plant - his brother died after suffering a head injury at the plant - but he never said a word.

"He wasn't a complainer," Pierowicz said. "He always came home with a smile on his face."

But how difficult will it be for the Pielechas, and thousands of other Western New Yorkers who believe they qualify for the compensation program, to actually get the money?

Very difficult, it seems.

The obstacles are huge: Hundreds of thousands of workers. Hundreds of facilities nationwide. Events that happened, in many cases, 50 years ago.

As of mid-January, 1,093 area residents who toiled at now-shuttered factories such as Bliss & Laughlin in Buffalo, Simonds Saw and Steel in Lockport and Electro Metallurgical in Niagara Falls had filed a claim looking for that lump-sum payment, according to a federal officials.

And now the federal government must reconstruct and/or retrieve records to show how much contact workers had with radioactive materials and demonstrate how credible that data is.

Some who have closely followed the process have their doubts.

"The key question for a lot of people, I think, is: Is the data bogus?" said Dan Guttman, former executive director of the President's Advisory Commission on Human Radiation Experiments.

For many years, the federal government steadfastly denied that nuclear workers were in any jeopardy. Guttman and others wonder if the government can be trusted to do the right thing now that it has acknowledged its role in making workers sick.

"A lot of people are saying, "Look, we now find out that the government didn't tell us or contractors didn't tell us what we were exposed to,' " said Guttman, a lawyer who is now a fellow in American studies at Johns Hopkins University.

"Now they say, no problem, somebody is going to take data and tell us what we're exposed to," he said. "Why should we believe that their data is correct?"

Five-page claim application

For the Pielecha family, completing the Labor Department's five-page claim application last fall required correspondence to Bethlehem Steel's headquarters in Bethlehem, Pa., calls to the Social Security Administration and a search for medical records that were disposed of seven years after Pielecha's death. Now, from the West Seneca home where Piero-

wicz, her husband and her mother live, the family waits for a decision.

The promise of the money means more now that Bethlehem Steel has filed for bankruptcy. Emily Pielecha takes medication each day to control her thyroid disease and takes prescription painkillers frequently, when her osteoarthritis flares up. The drugs cost more than $100 a month, even with insurance coverage.

Pielecha and other Buffalo-area families who filed an application with the program should begin receiving judgments by April or May, according to the program's deputy director, Roberta Mosier. If their application is denied, Pierowicz said, she and her mother will appeal the decision within the 60 days allotted by Labor Department guidelines.

"We hope for it, but we don't pray for it," she said. "You don't pray for cash. You pray for health, and at least we've got that right now."

13 area companies involved

The government says 13 area companies handled nuclear materials for either the Department of Energy or its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission.

DOE spokesman Josh Silverman acknowledged that detailed information about the quantities of materials used - and how much radiation workers were exposed to - varies from site to site.

"The DOE owns some records that will be very helpful for some of the facilities in the Buffalo area, in particular for Simonds Saw and Steel," said Silverman, a program analyst for the DOE's Office of Worker Advocacy. "We have better records for some facilities than we have for others."

Some data spotty at best

There are some records that will help those processing claims reconstruct the radiation dose a worker received. After the dose reconstruction, processors will use complicated computer models to determine the likelihood that radiation caused a claimant's cancer.

"If (the likelihood) is 50 percent or greater, they're going to get an award," said Larry Elliott of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the branch of the federal Department of Health and Human Services in charge of dose reconstruction.

Elliott said that for those workplaces where records of worker exposures are available, his office is confident it can re-create the dose those workers absorbed.

But those who have followed the program say the records are spotty at best.

Guttman said it has been documented that for some of the government-owned sites, "the data was lousy or even misrepresented." For at least four sites, the data was so dubious that a special category was created.

For those four sites, the government acknowledged its data is too badly flawed to be valid, and all workers have to do was show they worked at the site, in an area where they were exposed and came down with one of the covered illnesses.

In those cases, there would be no attempt at dose reconstruction. The claim would simply be accepted, and the victim, or his family, would receive compensation.

"Once our process guidelines are out and people understand what they must do (to petition for special-category status), I anticipate we'll get a number of petitions," Elliott said.

Those guidelines, as well as a number of others that will help determine who gets a settlement, are still being formulated. It's hoped they will be ready in April.

In the meantime, Roberta Mosier of the Department of Labor urged those who have filed claims already to check with a toll-free hot line, (888) 859-7211, to find out about the status of their claim.

And there's another complicated issue: "What happens if you were there and the facility was contaminated, even if they were no longer working for the government?" asked Richard Miller with the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog agency that supports whistle-blowers.

Don Finch worked from 1974 to 1994 at Linde Air Products in the Town of Tonawanda, one of 13 Western New York plants identified by the government as part of the compensation program. Finch said he has watched many of his co-workers get sick with cancer, and some die. He doesn't believe those workers, or their families, will ever be compensated.

"I call it a cruel hoax," he said. "It's just an all-around shame."

The living are haunted

The shadow of Western New York's nuclear facilities haunts the living, too - former workers who are still battling illnesses related to their work at the plants.

Every day for 24 years, Charles Goodman treaded across the dirty cracks in the floor at Simonds Saw and Steel in Lockport. He, too, has filed for compensation, after fighting a string of illnesses that he says ruined his life.

After doctors diagnosed him with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1981, Simonds Saw and Steel went bankrupt. In quick succession, Goodman lost his job, his car and his house, and his medical benefits were cut off in the middle of a round of chemotherapy. Later, doctors removed a cancerous kidney, and Goodman continues to battle other illnesses still today.

The $150,000 won't make him whole again, but it might defuse some of the lingering hurt - and the nagging fear of the future.

"I sure could use the money," he said. "I keep up with the bills, but just barely. I'd like a little something for my wife for after I'm gone."

Last month, Goodman received a letter from the Labor Department asking for additional documentation of his renal failure. The letter asked for a response within 30 days; Goodman had the information ready to send out by the end of the weekend.

But he's growing weary of the paper chase.

"They took my kidney out. It had cancer," said the Albion resident. "What more proof could they possibly want?"

e-mail: hauer@buffnews.com

and jbonfatti@buffnews.com

Copyright © 1999 - 2002 The Buffalo NewsTM

(Emphasis by Don)

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