March 09, 2012

Schumer, Gillibrand and Higgins Call for Increased Eligibility for Bethlehem Steel Employee Compensation

Ask NIOSH to Expand Eligibility Period Until 1976

United States Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) called on top officials at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to expand the period upon which former Bethlehem Steel workers and their survivors can apply for compensation for sicknesses incurred due to residual contamination they were unknowingly exposed to while working at the former uranium rolling facility at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna.  

“The workers at the Bethlehem Steel plant and their families deserve an adequate and fair process – and they deserve compensation for the radiation exposure they suffered serving this nation’s agenda in the Cold War,” said Senator Schumer. “NIOSH needs to ensure that it is acting in a way that honors it’s charge as a claimant-friendly process. There is no creditable evidence that any serious clean-up of the highly contaminated cooling beds took place until 1976, and the workers who spent time there before that were undoubtedly exposed to highly dangerous contamination. These workers and their families, many of whom are now sick, need to be treated fairly.” 

“Western New York’s Bethlehem Steel Workers that worked in the plant well past 1952 are still left with the question of proper cleanup, and should not have to scale a mountain of red tape on their own to prove the un-provable before receiving the compensation they deserve,” said Senator Gillibrand. “These unsung heroes unknowingly sacrificed their health and wellbeing, and deserve care from conditions they suffer from as a result of Cold War operations.”

“The federal government subjected workers at the former uranium rolling facility at the Bethlehem Steel plant to dangerously high contamination exposure without notice nor proper safety precautions,” said Congressman Higgins. “For 25 years, until the cooling bed was filled in with concrete in 1976, workers who used that facility on a daily basis were subjected to an untold amount of toxic exposure to which there were no safety records taken during and any records that exist are spotty at best.  NIOSH needs to take seriously its assertion that this program is truly claimant-friendly and give these workers and their survivors an avenue to determine if the diseases they have suffered relate to this exposure.” 

In October, Schumer, Gillibrand and Higgins asked NIOSH to collect information available during the time period 1952 to 1976 to determine whether a proper assessment of contamination was ascertained by Bethlehem Steel or any safety agencies.  After an inquiry showed that no primary source documents exist during this time period because none were taken to measure any potential exposure, Schumer, Gillibrand and Higgins now argue that the residual contamination study completed in 2002 is incomplete and that the contamination period should be expanded to the year 1976 to allow former workers a pathway to compensation through a Special Exposure Cohort. 

Specifically, Schumer, Gillibrand and Higgins mention concerns that the 2002 study does not account for first-hand information provided by worker testimony and does not consider potential contamination on previously untested locations, such as pillar and gear box tops and crane necks. They also argue that the study is not transparent, lacking complete information on methods and processes used. 

Uranium was rolled at the Bethlehem Steel facility from 1949-1952. Due to a lack of appropriate protections and, subsequently, an inadequate clean up, workers were unknowingly exposed to high levels of radiation and to residual toxic uranium dust. After years of struggle, in 2010 the Secretary of Health and Human Services granted a Special Exposure Cohort for workers at the site during the time period 1949-1952, but the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, in making its recommendation to the Secretary, stopped short of expanding the residual contamination period.  Now, Schumer, Gillibrand and Higgins are calling on the officials to re-open that process so that a complete and fair consideration of the level of exposure can be made. 

Below is the text of the letter sent by Schumer, Gillibrand, and Higgins: 

John Howard, M.D.

Director

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

395 E Street, S.W., Suite 9200

Patriots Plaza Building

Washington, D.C. 20201 

Lewis Wade V., PhD

Senior Science Advisor

395 E Street, S.W.

Suite 9200

Patriots Plaza Building

Washington, D.C. 20201 

James Malcolm Melius, M.D., Dr. P.H.

Chairman

Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health

4676 Columbia Parkway MS: C-46

Cincinnati, OH 45226 

Stuart L. Hinnefeld

Director

Division of Compensation Analysis and Support

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

4676 Columbia Parkway, MS C–46

Cincinnati, OH 45226 

Dear Dr. Howard, Dr. Wade, Dr. Melius, and Mr. Hinnefeld: 

We write to you today on behalf of the sickened nuclear workers from the Bethlehem Steel facility located in Lackawanna, NY.  As you are aware a Special Exposure Cohort (SEC) was approved for the workers of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation from January 1st, 1949 through December 31st, 1952.  While we are pleased that this SEC was approved we feel strongly that the decision to end the SEC in 1952 was made without a complete consideration of the potential residual radiation contamination levels at Bethlehem Steel. 

We have spoken with a number of workers and reviewed the information they have provided as well as the information that is currently part of the NIOSH site profile, and from this information we believe a compelling argument can be made that residual contamination remained on site well after 1952. Furthermore, the EEOICPA was intended to be administered in a claimant friendly manner and as a result when a complete picture is not available NIOSH should err on the side of the sickened workers. 

Our position that residual contamination existed at the site long after 1952 is based on a number of important facts.  First, the National Lead Company of Ohio’s contamination study from September 14th, 1952 fails to take into account a number of key areas.  The study contained no smear testing of the top of the pillars and gear boxes located in the subbasement of the cooling bed.  This area would have been a prime location for collection of contaminated dust as it was located directly below the area where the bars were cooled.  Workers responsible for cleaning the subbasement have informed us that in fact there was no way, without dismantling the cooling bed, to clean many of these gear boxes and pillars. 

Additionally the study fails to account for potential contamination on the neck of the crane used in the rolling and shearing operation.  Workers have often cited, and NIOSH has agreed that large clouds of contaminated and harmful particles were routinely kicked up into the air; oftentimes these particles would settle on runways, catwalks, and the neck of the crane.  Areas like the crane were never cleaned and workers at the site have informed us that each time the crane moved a shower of contaminated dust would rain down on the workers and facilities below. 

Lastly, there is concern about the validity of the study itself.  The study was neither independent nor comprehensive.  Additionally, a clear and accountable picture of the techniques and methods used is not available.  Given the suspect nature of this flawed document combined with the fact that NIOSH freely admits to having no radiological survey data covering the time period from 1952 through 1976, a decision that impacts so many sickened workers should not be predicated on such limited evidence.  And since the EEOICPA calls for a worker friendly analysis of such limited evidence, we strongly believe the residual contamination period must be extended. 

Accordingly, since there is a compelling case that residual contamination existed long after rolling finished in 1952 and that there is no reliable evidence that such contamination did not exist, we believe that NIOSH should swiftly move to expand the SEC to include all workers from the date of the current SEC through 1976, when more accurate information is available.. 

EEOICPA was established with the promise to be both worker friendly and a remedial in its implementation; and in this case it is clear that in order to fulfill that promise the appropriate thing to do is to expand the SEC period given the near certainty that residual contamination continued to impact workers at Bethlehem Steel in the years following 1952.

Thank you for your attention to this critical matter and your assistance on behalf of these much deserving and sickened constituents. 

Sincerely,

Senator Charles Schumer

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

Congressman Brian Higgins