Tonawanda News

Sunday, February 2, 2003

Nuclear worker wants answers

Claim is slow-moving process

By Mark Scheer

SUNDAY STAFF

Leo Gonzalez checks on his claim every two months or so.

The retired Occidental Chemical Corp. employee gets the same response each time from the Department of Energy Employee Occupational Illness Compensation Program.

"They say they are still investigating it," Gonzalez said. He is one of nearly 38,000 people who has filed claims seeking restitution related to illnesses they may have developed the job.

Announced in 2000 by Clinton administration, the compensation program was intended to help ailing government and contract employees exposed to cancer-causing radiation or the lung-damaging metals silica and beryllium often without their knowledge.

Many people who have applied for relief through the program have so far been lost in the paperwork shuffle.

"I've given them all the information they want," Gonzalez said. "I don't know what they are investigating. I think they are holding back. What are they going to do, wait until we all die?"

The Niagara Falls native, who now lives in Tennessee, spent more than 40 years working with Hooker Electro Chemical Co., a company that later became Occidental. From 1954 to 1957, Gonzalez served as a maintenance worker on a project sponsored by the federal government. His duties on the P-31 project brought him in contact with boron, a chemical element involved in the production of metal rods used in the operation of nuclear reactors.

Gonzalez believes exposure to that material Contributed to his bout with prostate cancer. His proof lies within some long-lost documents that held the results of the daily checkups he received to determine whether his work caused his exposure level to reach unhealthy levels.

Although Gonzalez was able to provide the Labor Department with records of his career with Occidental, including his stint on the P-31 project, he has not had any success locating health records from his time on the job. As a result, his claim has been placed among the largest block of claims known as "dose reconstructions." Before those types of claims can be paid, the federal government must determine how much radiation each cancer-stricken worker received and what part it played in their illness.

Gonzalez has waited 14 months for word about his claim. He's joined on the list by 10,292 others.

"How are they going to find out how much radiation I got?" Gonzalez asked. "All they know is that it was a site for nuclear materials. How could they tell anything else? There's no records."

So far, the Labor Department has processed just 14 "dose reconstructions." However, the head of the program says the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which is conducting the dose studies, should be picking up the pace. All 10,000 should be complete within a year, he said. Program Director Pete Turcic said sick workers don't have to prove any exposure at all in dose reconstructions, only that they are ill and worked in an area where there was a "99 percent confidence level" that they were exposed.

On the whole, Turcic said the compensation program has been daunting to set up, given that it covers 600,000 workers at 317 sites in 37 states. Turcic said progress is being made and will continue.

The government so far has paid nearly $442 million in restitution and $5.8 million in medical bills on 6,100 claims. About half of the claims were filed by workers, the rest by families of those who are deceased.

The government doesn't track how many workers have died while waiting for benefits.

Each worker or surviving family gets $150,000 in cash. The total payout could reach $1.7 billion over 10 years, according to estimates.

To date, 6,700 claims have been rejected, mostly because the worker's illness or work site was not covered under the program. A total of 13,950 cases are pending.

Gonzalez and others in his situation have received some support locally from U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer's office. The office has taken up the fight to get checks for eligible workers from Western New York, an area that was once home to 13 nuclear weapons programs. To date, six eligible New Yorkers have received compensation from the Labor Department. None of them were from Western New York.

Schumer's office has directed several individual cases involving Western New York employees to the Labor Department. It also has been busy compiling a database of Western New York workers who have filed claims or believe they would be eligible.

Schumer spokesperson Christy Setzer said the finished product will be made available to the Department of Labor as proof of the need for compensation for Western New York workers.

"We're getting as much information as possible so we can present a case to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health," Setzer said.

Contact Mark Scheer at 282-2311 Ext. 2248, or scheerm@gnnewspaper.com

(Emphasis by Don)

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By the numbers

Statistics from the federal compensation program for Department of Energy on contractor workers made sick from beryllium, silica or radiation exposure in the nation's nuclear weapons program.

Claims nationally through Jan. 9:

Filed: 37,975

Approved: 7,022

Denied: 6,711

Awaiting dose reconstruction: 10,292

Compensation paid: $441.8 million

Medical bills paid: $5.8 million

Web Sites:

* Department of Labor:

http://www.dol.gov/esa/regs/compliance/owcp/eeoicp/main.htm

* National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health:

http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/homepage.html

* Department of Energy

http://www.energy.gov

(Scanned by Don)

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