Compensation coming slowly for workers on N-program

By JOHN F. BONFATTI

News Staff Reporter

2/10/2003

The money - $150,000, free of federal taxes - won't bring back her father. Chastity Penfold Roberts suspects he died of cancer after being exposed to radiation while working on the U.S. government's atomic weapons program 50 years ago at Bethlehem Steel.

But if she does get money through a federal program designed to compensate atomic workers or their survivors, Roberts wants to make sure her children have something of substance to connect them to the grandfather they never met.

"It would be nice to get a really nice headstone," she said of Neil Roberts, who was 67 when he died in 1992. "He got one from (a veterans organization), but I'd like him to have a nice one."

The federal Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, which went into effect in 2002, involves three Cabinet-level federal agencies, about 350 facilities and, so far, 38,000 claims nationwide.

It is a cumbersome process that has been criticized by some, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., for taking too much time to produce results.

A recent report, however, may make compensation more likely for many of those who filed claims involving the atomic work done at Bethlehem Steel between 1949 and 1952, according to an official with the Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group.

Richard Miller, who has followed the law and its implementation for the group, said a preliminary model developed to show the level of exposure at Bethlehem Steel used guidelines that give the claimant the benefit of a doubt when there is uncertainty.

"It looks to me that the people who filed claims may be getting good news soon," Miller said. "We do know that, at least for the lung cancer cases, . . . it looks like there's a high chance people will be compensated."

Bethlehem Steel was one of 13 Western New York facilities identified by the government as having done atomic work for either the federal Atomic Energy Commission or its successor agency, the Department of Energy.

Seven are in Erie County, five in Niagara County, and one in Cattaraugus County.

As of Jan. 16, there have been 2,072 claims had been filed involving 1,585 former workers at those local facilities, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs. Some claims involve multiple survivors of a worker.

Statewide, only six cases, involving eight claimants, have reached the point where workers, or their survivors, have received money. Four of those cases, and six of those claimants, involve former workers at Bethlehem Steel, who have received a total of $600,000.

An additional 382 Bethlehem Steel cases are at a crucial stage in the process. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is in the process of using models, such as the one developed for Bethlehem Steel, to determine the amount of radiation received by workers.

The preliminary model developed for Bethlehem Steel, the first one developed for 350 facilities across the country, was presented earlier this month in Cincinnati. It culls information from a variety of sources to provide a clearer picture of what work was done for the government at Bethlehem Steel.

Between 1949 and 1952, the government subcontracted Bethlehem to roll 5-inch billets of natural uranium into 11/2-inch rods for loading into government nuclear reactors in Hanford, Wash. Four or five experimental runs took place on six dates between April and October 1951. Seven production runs took place between January and September 1952, involving between 157 and 303 billets each.

The model shows that some of the workers were exposed to airborne uranium at levels as high as 1,000 times the maximum concentration the government deemed allowable at the time.

"I was astounded that levels could be that high," Miller said, adding that the government kept increasing the maximum allowable concentration to keep up with production demand. "Imagine the density of the dust in the air."

The model, which has not yet been finalized, contains a range of concentrations but allows for that level of 1,000 times the maximum. If that concentration stays in the final model, Miller said, more of the claims awaiting the new measurement of exposure will be approved.

"If you were there during the year they had 1,000 times the maximum allowable concentration, even if you smoked, you would be compensated" if the worker contracted lung cancer, he said.

Miller added that he has talked with insiders in the program who think that the same airborne concentrations were present at Simonds Saw & Steel in Lockport.

Including the 382 cases from Bethlehem Steel, 727 cases involving the covered Western New York facilities await a new way to measure exposure to radiation at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. That process "has been slower to get going than we would have hoped, but it is moving ahead," said Shelby Hallmark, director of the Labor Department's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs.

Once the new way of measuring radiation exposure is complete, Hallmark's office will plug the results into a computer model to determine probability of a worker's illness being caused by radiation exposure. If the figure is 50 percent or higher, the worker, or the survivor, will get the $150,000 award.

There also is good news for those who worked at five of the local plants, but after the period of time covered under the law.

A preliminary report examining the factories has concluded that there is potentially "significant residual contamination" that was left at the factories after the government work stopped.

That may be important if Congress decides to extend the period of time covered in the program. There was such legislation in the last Congress, but it never got out of committee.

Currently, the law only for payments to only cancer-stricken workers who were at the facilities while the government work was being done. But since the effects of radiation contamination often become evident over long periods of time, those who worked at the facilities after the government projects were finished have argued that they, too, should be eligible.

Three of the five local sites are in the Town of Tonawanda: Ashland Oil, Linde Ceramics and Seaway Industrial. The other sites are Bliss & Laughlin Steel in Buffalo and the West Valley Demonstration Project in the Town of Ashford, Cattaraugus County.

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

Copyright 1999 - 2003 - The Buffalo News

(Emphasis by Don)

COMMENT:

This is just another example of the Big Brother Bureaucracies (BBB) at work. At first glance, it appears that this is a good (but long overdue) program to compensate nuclear workers for the medical suffering and many deaths caused by exposure to ionizing radiation. But, the claimants have to jump through so many hoops in order to be compensated that it has become almost impossible to achieve that goal.

My fellow Linde/Praxair coworkers were exposed during their years of employment to residual contamination present in the soil and some buildings at the work place. Now that the latency period for cancer due to long-term exposure to low-level ionizing radiation has been reached, many of my former coworkers are either contracting cancers or have already died of various cancers.

We are still fighting to have these workers covered under this act. As it stands now, my fellow coworkers are not covered under the present time frame. See bold faced text in above article.

Then some wonder why I call this a cruel hoax being perpetuated upon the sick workers or their families.

What did/does the government do about Agent Orange, Gulf War syndrome, use of DU weaponry, etc.,? - - it lied/lies about any connection to medical problems and deaths.

Perhaps I'm cynical - - BUT, not without reason.

Don

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