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Radiation's sticky red tape

Poisoned by a nuclear weapons industry that began in the 1940s, former workers still await compensation from a government that a lawmaker calls 'totally uncooperative'

By BILL MICHELMORE

News Niagara Bureau

10/28/2003

NIAGARA FALLS - For years, they say, they were being poisoned by chemicals. Now, they say, they're suffocating in red tape.

Former chemical workers gathered in a drafty union hall in the industrial core of the city Monday to utter a familiar and frustrating cry.

They want to know why they have not been paid the $150,000 the federal government promised each of them for the radiation to which they were exposed while working on nuclear weapons programs at plants in Erie and Niagara counties in the 1940s and '50s.

"The government has been totally uncooperative with us," Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, told them in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union Hall on 24th Street. "My office has had to fight to get this money the same as you people have."

Congress established a program three years ago to compensate more than 3,700 former chemical workers and their families in Western New York. So far, the Department of Labor has approved only 12 claims, less than 1 percent of all claims filed in Western New York, Slaughter said.

The government said that it would process the claims in a timely manner, Slaughter pointed out. "That word "timely' almost gets struck in my throat," she said.

One bit of possibly encouraging news, she said, is that representatives of the Department of Labor and the Department of Energy were scheduled to be at two locations today through Thursday to assist workers with their claims.

The representatives were scheduled to be at the Buffalo/Niagara Marriott Hotel, 1340 Millersport Highway, Amherst, between 8:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Representatives also were to be at the Microtel Inn & Suites, 270 South Cascade Drive, Springville, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and Wednesday, and from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday.

"I am pleased they are visiting Western New York, but we still have a very long way to go," Slaughter said.

It just sounds like more paperwork to Charles Spencer, 72, who worked at a Linde plant in North Tonawanda for 35 years.

"I've already filled out a stack of papers a foot high and I'm still waiting to hear back from someone," said the North Buffalo resident, who has lost half his lung to cancer.

Raymond Corsaro, 61, of Niagara Falls, who was employed by Lake Ontario Ordnance Works in Lewiston, said he did the paperwork and also a whole lot of telephoning, but has received no results.

"I call every month and I get a different story each time," Corsaro said. "In one of the calls, someone told me he'd call me shortly - that was a year ago. Now they tell me they can't locate my records."

It is too late for Glenn Mort, a 40-year worker at Hooker Electro Chemical in Niagara Falls who died in 1989 at 65. However, his widow, Dorothea, of Niagara Falls, has taken up the cause.

"I've been everywhere on this," she said. "I even wrote to President Bush. I'm not going to give up."

It was the second time this year and the third in less than a year that lawmakers have tried to give the workers - many of them cancer-ridden - encouragement not to give up.

Ernest Franke was one of the workers at the first meeting held here in December by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. At the next meeting, called by Slaughter in March, a memorial service was held the same day for Franke, who had died a week earlier.

New York had more sites engaged in nuclear programs than anywhere else in the United States - 36, more than a third of them in Western New York, officials have said.

In addition to the aforementioned Linde, Hooker Electro Chemical and Lake Ontario Ordnance Works locations, hundreds of the uncompensated local people worked at these sites:

Ashland Oil, the Town of Tonawanda; Bethlehem Steel, Lackawanna; Bliss & Laughlin Steel, Buffalo; Carborundum, Niagara Falls; Electro Metallurgical, Niagara Falls; Linde Air Products, Buffalo; Linde Ceramics, Town of Tonawanda; Seaway Industrial Park, Town of Tonawanda; Simonds Saw & Steel, Lockport; Titanium Alloys, Niagara Falls; Utica Street Warehouse, Buffalo; and West Valley Demonstration Project, Ashford.

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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