The Buffalo News - National - HEALTH

Report details radiation exposure

Contamination called long-lasting

By JERRY ZREMSKI

News Washington Bureau

11/8/2003

WASHINGTON - Significant radiation contamination could have remained for years after nuclear weapons work stopped in at least eight industrial sites in Western New York, the federal government reported Friday.

Most dramatically, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said workers at Linde Ceramics in the Town of Tonawanda could have been exposed to cancer-causing radiation anytime between 1940 and 1997. The government previously had said the site was dangerous only when weapons work took place there from 1940 to 1950, and during a 1996-97 cleanup.

Similarly, workers at Ashland Oil in the Town of Tonawanda could have been exposed to radiation anytime between 1944 and 1998, while workers at Bliss and Laughlin Steel of Buffalo could have faced a potential danger anytime between 1948 and 1998.

The report gave no indication of how many additional people might have been exposed to radiation - or how many might have come down with cancer - but thousands have worked at the sites over the years.

"This long-overdue report confirms what we have suspected all along," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, the Fairport Democrat who represents an area that includes many of the Western New York sites, and who released the report. "Most former nuclear facilities in Western New York remained contaminated long after their contracts with the Atomic Energy Commission ended."

The report also indicated that workers at the West Valley Demonstration Project could have been exposed to radiation anytime between 1966 and the present.

Long-lasting radiation also could have hurt workers at four other local plants: Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, Seaway Industrial Park in the Town of Tonawanda, Titanium Alloys Manufacturing in Niagara Falls and Simonds Saw and Steel in Lockport. The report offered no specifics on how long contamination could have lasted at those sites.

There was too little information to determine whether long-lasting radiation exposure occurred at two other Niagara Falls sites: Carborundum Co. and Hooker Electrochemical.

And the report said there was no long-term risk at the Linde Air Products and Utica Street Warehouse sites in Buffalo, and at the Electro Metallurgical site in Niagara Falls.

Nationwide, the report said 97 sites had potential for "significant residual contamination" long after the end of the Manhattan Project, America's initial effort to build nuclear weapons.

"A site was assigned to this category if there was documentation indicating the radioactive material was present in quantities or forms which could have caused or substantially contributed to the cancer of a covered employee," the report said.

An earlier "progress report" indicated that only 12 percent of the former nuclear sites had significant potential for contamination, but the final report showed that 44 percent did.

Losing a lung to cancer

Sites such as Linde pose the greatest concern, said Richard Miller, a policy analyst at the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit watchdog group that has been following the issue.

Linde produced uranium metal and nickel by milling a particularly potent ore, which produced a fine black radioactive dust, he said.

"The type of residuals you would get from that would be not just uranium, but also radon and radium, and they are very potent long-term carcinogens," Miller said.

Roger J. Curtiss of the Town of Tonawanda said he found that out firsthand three years ago when he lost a lung to cancer.

Curtiss, who worked at the Linde plant from 1951 to 1993, said there were many signs of trouble at the plant.

"They always went around with a Geiger counter," he said. "They said there wasn't a problem, but a bunch of the wells were contaminated."

Curtiss also remembers a fine black dust that clung to the rafters for decades and fell to the floor whenever there was a loud noise.

"They never did get it cleaned up," Curtiss said, noting that the building was eventually demolished.

That building came down in the late 1990s as part of a multimillion-dollar federal cleanup that then-Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, advocated.

Bill extends compensation

Pressed by former employees at such plants, Congress in 2000 approved a bill granting former nuclear workers and their families $150,000 in federal compensation if it can be proved that the worker developed cancer because of exposure to radiation.

Many workers criticize that program, saying it takes the government forever to determine whether they are eligible for the payment. Moreover, that program covers only workers who were at those plants at the time of the nuclear weapons work.

That has to change, said Slaughter, who is sponsoring a bill that would extend the compensation to workers who joined those facilities later.

"Workers were exposed without their knowledge or consent to Cold War radioactive materials at these plants long after their mission for the government had ended, and those with cancer have waited long enough," Slaughter said.

Rods made on weekends

The report also provides some insights into the details of the Manhattan Project and its blithe treatment of deadly materials.

It describes uranium being rolled into rods at Bethlehem Steel's rolling mill on weekends when steel wasn't being made. The same sort of work took place at Simonds Saw and Steel in Lockport, which Miller described as "a pigsty when they shut it down."

Meanwhile, at Titanium Alloys in Niagara Falls, workers burned uranium ores in a furnace. And at Ashland Oil in Tonawanda, workers buried 8,000 tons of uranium ore left over from the Linde site.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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