The Buffalo News - Western New York - FEDERAL GOVERNMENT

Clinton calls on federal program to compensate area atomic workers

By JOHN F. BONFATTI

News Staff Reporter

12/13/2003

Unknown to most of them, they helped America win the Cold War. Now it's time for America to pay them back.

That was the message Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., had Friday for about 50 people who gathered in Hamburg Town Hall to complain about a federal program designed to compensate workers who developed radiation-related cancers after working on atomic weapons projects in Western New York.

The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation program was supposed to give those workers, or their survivors, $150,000 if they worked at one of the area sites that were involved in government atomic weapons work and later developed certain cancers.

Instead, say many local residents who have filed claims, the program has bogged down, with very few of the thousands who have filed claims actually receiving the money, and others believing they have been improperly denied.

Clinton said it was time to make sure the program was doing what it was intended to do when her husband signed it into law as president in 2000.

"Ultimately, the question is how do we in America take care of the people who sacrificed their health, and years of their life, to take care of us?" she said. "Further delay is denying long-overdue justice."

Many of those in attendance worked at Bethlehem Steel, one of 13 area sites where the government now acknowledges it exposed workers - most of whom were not aware of it at the time - to radiation while they worked on the U.S. atomic development programs.

At Bethlehem Steel, which has generated the largest number of claims locally, workers rolled uranium for use in government reactors.

"So many of you came home from World War II and, whether you knew it or not, were called to serve again in the Cold War," she said, referring to their work on the atomic programs. She added that those workers "deserve to be treated with more respect."

Specifically, Clinton said she will push for the release of long-delayed guidelines for establishing special classifications within the program that would make it easier for those who have filed claims to receive awards.

The government has already established those classifications for workers at a handful of federal government facilities, and the law allows more to be created.

Clinton said she believed there was "a bias in this administration to workers who worked in federal facilities," but that workers who did the work for private companies under government contract "should not be given less consideration."

Clinton said that if those guidelines are implemented, "I think the vast majority of people I represent would fall into that" classification.

She also said she was sponsoring legislation to extend the period of time when workers would be eligible for compensation.

Currently, only workers who were at the facilities when the government work was being done are eligible. But a government study recently concluded that the long-term effects of radiation meant that many who subsequently worked at the sites may also have been exposed.

"We have to fix the act to make sure people who were exposed to residual contamination are explicitly eligible," she said.

Clinton promised to do "my very best" and "move aggressively" to make the necessary corrections to the program.

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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