The Buffalo News - Western New York

Processing claims tied to N-arms work are criticized

By JERRY ZREMSKI

News Washington Bureau

9/14/2004

WASHINGTON - While the federal government is processing claims from many former nuclear weapons workers who say their jobs made them sick, it has not yet dealt with claims involving several Western New York facilities where 380 such workers or their survivors have filed for compensation.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report that claims processing "has essentially stopped" at facilities where the government has not yet done a study profiling the risks workers faced.

An official involved in the program said Monday that work on such "site profiles" only recently began at four Western New York locations: Linde Air Products and Linde Ceramics of the Town of Tonawanda and Hooker Electrochemical and Simonds Saw of Niagara Falls. Meanwhile, the government doesn't plan to do profiles of five other local former nuclear sites.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the GAO report shows that the compensation program is in trouble.

"This report confirms what we have been saying for years, that we have New Yorkers literally dying off as they wait for these payments that were promised to them," he said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, said the report did not go far enough.

"The people who are seeking help under this program must be treated with respect and have their claims evaluated in a timely, consistent manner," she said. "The GAO report provides no road map to get us there."

The program, which provides $150,000 payments and medical coverage to eligible workers, has long been criticized as a quagmire. And the report from Congress' watchdog agency did little to change that impression.

"Some claimants could wait a considerable period to have their claims fully processed," the GAO said.

That's especially true for former workers whose claims are sent to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for "dose reconstructions" - tests that determine their exposure to nuclear materials. At former nuclear sites where more than 40 formers [sic] workers have filed claims, that federal agency develops site profiles. But if those site profiles remain undone, applications for compensation tend to languish, the GAO said. Overall, the government has processed only 9 percent of the claims requiring dose reconstructions.

The GAO suggested that the agency responsible for dose reconstructions set up a timetable for completing the site evaluations. And Larry Elliott, director of the agency's Office of Compliance Analysis and Support, said he's doing just that.

He also said that because of limited resources, profiles would not be done at most facilities where fewer than 40 people had filed claims.

By far the greatest number of claims locally - 560 - came from former Bethlehem Steel Corp. workers. A site profile has been done for that site, and NIOSH reported that dose reconstructions had been completed for 500 of those cases.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com.

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