The Buffalo News - National

Congress pushes reform of nuclear compensation

By JERRY ZREMSKI

News Washington Bureau

10/31/2003

WASHINGTON - The troubles of former nuclear workers from Western New York took center stage Thursday, as Congress began pressuring bureaucrats to speed up the effort to compensate such workers for the damage done to their health decades ago.

At a House hearing, Republicans and Democrats agreed that the nuclear compensation program is not working the way Congress intended when it established the effort three years ago. And they said former nuclear workers in the Buffalo Niagara region and nationwide are suffering the consequences.

"We are talking about workers who literally risked their lives defending the nation but who were lied to, misled and cheated by the government," said Rep. Major R. Owens, D-Brooklyn. "Unfortunately, based on information I have received concerning the experience of workers in Niagara Falls, it appears that these workers are still not being treated as they deserve."

No former nuclear workers testified, but Owens' statement included angry comments from a former atomic worker and the widow of another worker from Niagara Falls.

The worker, Thomas J. Catanzaro, said he developed colon cancer at age 32 in 1969. Nevertheless, "when I called to find out the status of my claim, I was told by a worker at (the Department of Energy) that there were people that were far more deserving than myself," Catanzaro said.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, is collecting statements from former atomic workers and their families and has already forwarded several to be included in the record of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee hearing.

Under the compensation program, former nuclear workers and their families are supposed to receive $150,000 if it can be proved that the worker developed cancer because of exposure to radiation.

But House members at the hearing said it's taking forever for workers and their families to get that compensation - and not just in Western New York.

"This is literally a matter of life or death to a lot of people I represent," said Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., whose district includes thousands of former employees involved in the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to develop nuclear weapons in the 1940s and 1950s.

In response, officials from the U.S. departments of Labor and Health and Human Services said they're doing their best but are often hampered by a lack of data that clearly and quickly ties worker illness to the nuclear effort.

The government is developing "dose reconstructions" aimed at trying to estimate the amount of radiation that workers were exposed to, and Congress mandated that it be a complex process, said John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

In addition, "determining when an occurrence of cancer is caused by radiation is a highly complex undertaking," said Shelby Hallmark, director of the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs at the Department of Labor. "Cancers don't come with a marker saying: This was caused by radiation."

Those explanations didn't appear to be good enough to Don Elisburg, an AFL-CIO attorney who testified at the hearing, or the members of Congress present.

In New York, Elisburg said, the federal government has accepted only 141 claims from former atomic workers, with 1,279 claims pending. He attributed the slowness of the program to its rigorous dose reconstruction requirements.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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