Today Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27, ) Senator Charles Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand urged National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Director John Howard to further investigate and report on the clean-up at Bethlehem Steel after highly radioactive uranium was processed there during the Cold War. Former Bethlehem Steel workers attest that the facility where uranium was rolled was not adequately decontaminated until 1976, despite earlier company reports claiming that the plant was cleaned up in 1952, meaning hundreds of additional workers may have been exposed to dangerous residual radiation.
“Many former employees of Bethlehem Steel unknowingly put their health at risk every time they crossed through those gates and they and their families have suffered dearly,” said Congressman Higgins. “Some suspect the unsafe health conditions existed much longer than currently projected and we are looking for answers on behalf of Bethlehem Steel families.”
“These men and women of Western New York sacrificed their own health and well-being for the advancement and security of our country, and I urge Director Howard to answer the questions of former Bethlehem Steel workers who fear they continued to work in radioactive sites for many years,” said Schumer. “I will not rest until those questions are answered.”
“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 to know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether or not there was sufficient cleanup of any residual radiation from the Cold War operations performed at Bethlehem.”
During World War II, and at the start of the Cold War, the federal government lacked the capacity to manufacture nuclear weapons in federal facilities and turned to the private sector for help. Workers at these facilities handled high levels of radioactive materials and were responsible for helping to create the huge nuclear arsenal that served as a deterrent to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Although government scientists knew of the dangers posed by the radiation, workers were given little or no protection and many have been diagnosed with cancer.
After denying it for decades, the federal government conceded during the 1990s that thousands of workers at more than 300 sites across the country were exposed to radiation without their knowledge, while they worked on the nation’s fledgling nuclear program during the 1940s and 1950s.
“For nearly 50 years workers had no idea they handled uranium or were exposed to residual radiation in the area,” added Lewis H. Webber, President of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 4-6 (Bethlehem Steel). “Ed Walker talked about this in his fight and I applaud Congressman Higgins and Senators Schumer and Gillibrand for working on it.”
Congress passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) in 2000 to compensate workers who contracted radioactive cancer, beryllium disease or chronic silicosis after working at sites that performed nuclear weapons work during World War II and the Cold War. Under EEOICPA, former nuclear workers or their survivors were eligible to file claims with the US Department of Labor (DOL) for individual payments of $150,000, as well as medical benefits. To file a claim, patients or their surviving families needed to provide proper documentation of their illness and employment history.
Uranium was rolled in the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna from 1949 to 1952, leaving workers with multiple forms of cancer and other illnesses. Many Bethlehem Steel employees who were sickened from handling uranium during those four years were finally compensated this year. However, some of these same workers have come forward with accounts of clean-up of the radioactivity using simple methods that were inadequate to make the worksite safe for them and workers who were hired after the last uranium rods were shipped out.
Although the October 2009 report issued by NIOSH titled “Report on Residual Radioactive and Beryllium Contamination at Atomic Weapons Employer Facilities and Beryllium Vendor Facilities,” concludes the Bethlehem Steel site has been determined to have “little potential” for residual radiation contamination, the informational sources used to make this conclusion seem to be contemporaneous with the 1976 cleanup, not for the period from when uranium rolling ended.
In their letter to NIOSH Director John Howard, Schumer, Gillibrand and Higgins request NIOSH conduct a thorough search of primary source documents from 1952-1976 that may be held in storage at the New York State Archives because there is potential for information held there to more fully illuminate the risk for radiation exposure during the time period in question and to more fully illuminate the risk for radiation exposure; and answer the following questions:
- Has NIOSH examined all relevant documentation including documents contained in New York State Archives?
- Who performed the clean-up work at the Bethlehem Steel site?
- What processes were used to clean up the site?
- What measurements were taken to prove the site was clean and safe for Bethlehem Steel employees to continue working on the site used to roll uranium?
Below is the letter:
October 18, 2011
Mr. John Howard
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
395 E Street, S.W., Suite 9200
Patriots Plaza Building
Washington, D.C. 20001
Dear Director Howard,
We write you today on behalf of former workers at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, New York and their survivors who worked at and/or had access to the former uranium rolling facility from the years 1952-1976. It is the assertion of those who were there during that time that before 1976, any attempts to clean-up the facility where uranium rolling occurred were incomplete and substandard, leaving a whole class of workers subject to residual contamination. We believe this assertion should be expounded on through a thorough search of primary source documents from that time period. We have listed specific questions below. We would urge you to take these inquiries seriously, and, upon a thorough search, assess anew your conclusions as to the level of residual contamination during the time period 1952-1976.
As you know, the Special Exposure Cohort for workers at the site only extends until 1952, leaving the claims of this class of workers unheard. Indeed pursuant to the October 2009 report issued by NIOSH titled “Report on Residual Radioactive and Beryllium Contamination at Atomic Weapons Employer Facilities and Beryllium Vendor Facilities,” the Bethlehem Steel site has been determined to have “little potential” for residual radiation contamination. However, the informational sources used to make this conclusion seem to be contemporaneous with the 1976 cleanup, not for the period from when uranium rolling ended.
Given the many first-hand accounts on this issue, and the relative brevity of the Residual Radioactivity Evaluation for the Bethlehem Steel site, and the lack of independent information sources as to the cleanup for the period 1952-1976, we would like answers to the following questions:
- It is our understanding that pertinent information on Manhattan Project facilities in Western New York, and specifically the Bethlehem Steel site, is held in storage at the New York State Archives. It is our belief that there is a potential for information held there to more fully illuminate the risk for radiation exposure during the time period in question. Has the Agency reviewed these documents? If so, what were those findings? If not, does the Agency plan to review them before a new and updated Residual Radioactive Evaluation is submitted for the Bethlehem Steel site?
- There is significant confusion as to what entity was responsible for the clean-up of the uranium rolling facility after rolling was suspended in 1952. This could also materially affect the conclusions of the Residual Radioactivity Evaluation. Who performed the clean-up work at the Bethlehem Steel site? What levels of safety were used in that clean-up? Were adequate safety precautions used to assertively prevent residual radioactive exposure for those cleaning up the site and those working at the site during that time?
- There is also confusion as to what levels of safety were used to determine that the site was indeed a “clean” site after 1952 until 1976 when actions were taken to cover the cooling bed area in concrete. What agency was responsible for measuring any potential exposure? Are there any findings that can be referenced as to what safety standards were used in comparison of what would be considered safe by modern workplace standards?
- Through the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, the United States Army Corps of Engineers initiated a program to clean up and control sites that were part of the country’s early atomic energy and weapons program. Is there any documentation to determine the status of the Bethlehem Steel site from that time to determine its eligibility for inclusion in FUSRAP?
We would like to reiterate our concern of the lack of primary sources from the years 1952-1976 to demonstrate a level of worker safety that would indicate that the class of workers who used this site on a daily or occasional basis was certifiably protected from exposure to any residual radioactivity. We believe a further examination is warranted, and we hope your agency, working along with other pertinent agencies of jurisdiction on this issue, will be helpful in providing information for our constituents.
_______________________ _______________________ _______________________
CHARLES SCHUMER KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND BRIAN HIGGINS
United States Senator United States Senator Member of Congress
Stuart Hinnefeld, Interim Director, NIOSH DCAS
Lieutenant Colonel Stephen H. Bales, District Commander, USACE Buffalo District
Christine Ward, Assistant Commissioner, New York State Archives