The Buffalo News - Niagara County

LABOR DEPARTMENT

Former nuclear workers fight for justice in delayed government compensation

By BILL MICHELMORE

News Niagara Bureau

12/18/2002

NIAGARA FALLS - Ernest Franke, 80, a former ironworker who has cancer, hopes he lives to see the $150,000 the federal government owes him and thousands of others who worked on nuclear weapons programs during the 1940s and 1950s.

"Trying to get the money has been a long drawn-out process," Franke said Tuesday outside a boarded-up chemical factory. "Most of the people I worked with are gone. Will I live long enough to see it? I don't know."

Standing at his side was Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who said he would press the federal government to honor the workers' claims for compensation.

"We're going to fight for you," Schumer told Franke and other ill nuclear workers who gathered in front of the former Alox Chemical Co. on Buffalo Avenue. Hundreds of area residents who have cancer have applied for the money.

Congress approved legislation more than two years ago to pay $150,000 to each worker who had been diagnosed with cancer after working at plants that handled radioactive materials during World War II and the Cold War years that followed.

"Scores of people were exposed to toxic levels of radiation and now have cancer. Some have even died," Schumer said. "But the Labor Department has failed to implement this law effectively, and in so doing has essentially turned its back on these unsung heroes of the Cold War."

New York had more factories engaged in nuclear programs than anywhere else in the United States - 36 plants, including 13 in Western New York, many of them in Niagara Falls, Schumer said.

"We were the epicenter, and yet of the more than 5,600 claims that have been paid out nationwide, the federal government has so far honored only six claims in New York State," he said. "The damage, the hurt and the pain our people feel is very real and they must be compensated."

The hundreds of uncompensated people worked at such plants as Hooker Electrochemical, Titanium Alloys, and Electro Metallurgical, all in Niagara Falls, Simonds Saw and Steel Co. in Lockport, Ashland Oil in the Town of Tonawanda, Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna and Linde Air Products in Buffalo.

"Hundreds of workers at these facilities handled high levels of radioactive materials with little or no protective gear or other precautions," said Niagara Falls Councilman Paul A. Dyster, who sponsored a resolution for government action that was unanimously passed by Council in July 2001.

The resolution asked the federal government "to do full justice to the many dedicated workers and their families who suffered as a result of their contribution to the national security of all Americans."

With no follow-up from the federal government, Dyster has drafted a second resolution caling the "continuation of this delay unacceptable, especially given the illness and advanced age of many of the patriotic and self-sacrificing workers who exposed themselves to extreme hazards."

The resolution will be presented to City Council on Monday.

"There's a lot of frustration among the former workers," said Bradley E. Erck, D-Lockport, chairman of the Niagara County Legislature.

"These people are living on borrowed time," Schumer said. "We want the Labor Department to conduct a thorough analysis of the situation and get to the bottom of this injustice."

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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