The Buffalo News - Western New York

RADIOACTIVE LEGACY

Report on N-sites may boost workers' claims

By PATRICK LAKAMP and LOU MICHEL

News Staff Reporters

11/9/2003

A new federal report could strengthen compensation claims by former industrial workers, like Joseph D. Dudek of Cambria, who worked in contaminated Western New York factories after atomic weapons activities ceased in the 1940s and '50s.

But they still do not expect to collect.

"I doubt if I'll see a settlement," said Dudek, who traces his colon cancer to his 20-plus years at Simonds Saw & Steel in Lockport. "The way they're dragging their feet, who knows how long it will still take? I'm 76, you know."

Dudek is among those who have been denied benefits under a federal program to compensate cancer-stricken atomic workers or their survivors. The program pays $150,000 only to those who worked during a company's tenure as a nuclear contractor.

He worked at the steel production facility from July 1961 until March 1983 - starting at the company five years after its atomic work ended.

Now, a report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says cancer-causing radiation could have remained at the site and at least seven others in the region for many years after weapons work stopped.

"I used to work all around the mills where they rolled rods of radioactive material," Dudek said. "The trouble is, they never told anyone what they had done or that the areas were still dangerous. I worked right next to where the rods had been produced."

But when Dudek sought compensation, he was denied.

"They never gave me nothing," he said. "They said I wasn't in the time period. That's why I wasn't eligible."

Judith Anne Cinelli, whose late husband, Frank, had worked at the Linde Ceramics plant in the Town of Tonawanda, was also denied benefits.

Her husband died of lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 60. His father, also a former Linde worker, also died of cancer.

She said her husband's extended exposure to the radioactive particles between 1960 and 1971 - a decade after Linde's nuclear work ended - caused his cancer.

"There was a lot of dust in the plant that was never cleaned," she said.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, the Fairport Democrat whose district includes many of the Western New York sites, is sponsoring a bill that would extend compensation to those who worked in the facilities after the nuclear work ended.

What can former workers expect to see?

Ralph Krieger, a former president of Local 8-215 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union who worked at the Linde plant for 33 years, called the report "a major step forward."

"However, is it answering all the questions needed to get this program in line? It's not so far," Krieger said.

The report said workers at the Linde plant in the Town of Tonawanda could have been exposed to cancer-causing radiation anytime between 1940 and 1997. Previously, the government had said the site had been dangerous only from 1940 to 1950, while weapons work was done there, and during a 1996-97 cleanup.

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

Workers also could have been hurt by long-lasting radiation at four other local plants: Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, Seaway Industrial Park in the Town of Tonawanda, Titanium Alloys Manufacturing in Niagara Falls and the West Valley Demonstration Project in Cattaraugus County. The report offered no specifics on how long those locations might have remained contaminated.

Investigations could not find enough information to determine any long-lasting radiation exposure at two other Niagara Falls sites: Carborundum Co. and Hooker Electrochemical.

The report said Linde Air Products and Utica Street Warehouse sites in Buffalo, and the Electro Metallurgical site in Niagara Falls posed no long-term risks.

Robert Simmons, 69, of Lockport, a former Simonds Steel worker, said he hasn't bothered to apply for compensation.

He started work just as Simonds' nuclear work was ending.

"I don't believe I'll ever see a dime," Simmons said. "If I had an idea it might be worth the trouble, I might do it. All they do is give you the runaround, so I didn't even bother."

He took a medical retirement in 1980 and now spends between $300 and $400 a month for eight prescriptions. He has a heart problem and sometimes has difficulty breathing.

He wonders how he could prove exposure to radiation caused his medical problems.

"I don't know why it wouldn't explain it," he said. "I worked there for 25 years.

"You're not going to get nothing," he said. "And I'm not going to spend what little money I have to hire a lawyer and sue the federal government. Ever sue the federal government?"

Krieger said he has encouraged workers to seek compensation, no matter how skeptical they might be.

"Hang in there," he said. "We are working on it. We have to persevere. Not all issues are won in an instant. This is a very complex issue."

Though Dudek's cancer is in remission, he has related health difficulties.

"It's mostly bowel problems, but the doctors said I'd have to live with that the rest of my life. There's nothing they can do," Dudek said. "I get diarrhea so bad there are times I can't go anywhere. You never know when it is going to happen."

Dudek accused the government and company of failing to act responsibly by not letting workers know they were being exposed to radiation.

"Somebody should have said something. Those particles spread all throughout the plant," Dudek said. "I worked with guys who earlier had produced them rods. They'd have to dress in protective clothing and change every day."

Cinelli said contamination has exacted an awful toll.

"My husband's father, Nicholas, had worked at Linde. He actually worked on the Manhattan Project and died at the age of 54 from cancer. He weighed 60 pounds when he died," she said.

"Frank's brother Joe also worked at Linde and has had lung, prostate and lymphoma cancer. He's still alive, but not doing real well. It has been an ongoing battle for over 10 years for him," Cinelli said.

e-mail: plakamp@buffnews.com

and lmichel@buffnews.com

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