April 27, 2009

Higgins, Schumer, Gillibrand, Lee, Slaughter & Massa Announce Bill Ensuring Former Bethlehem Steel Steel Workers and Families Receive Compensation They Deserve

Bill Extends Compensation to Workers Exposed to Radiation Whose Exposure Records May Be Incomplete or Lacking Proper Documentation

Today, Senator Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressmembers Brian Higgins, Chris Lee, Louise Slaughter and Eric Massa introduced legislation in their respective Houses in Congress to allow former Bethlehem Steel workers to receive compensation under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP). The Ed Walker Memorial Act works to reform the compensation program for nuclear workers at Bethlehem Steel and other former New York atomic weapons production facilities, and allows them to receive the compensation they deserve.

"Many Bethlehem Steel employees paid a steep price in terms of their health for their work on behalf of this nation," said Congressman Higgins.  "This bill would bring resolution to a nearly decade long, exhausting and undeserved struggle mounted by the workers and families who have sacrificed so much."

"Ed Walker's tireless work on behalf of former Bethlehem Steel workers was an inspiration to everyone he encountered and this legislation wouldn't exist today without his Herculean efforts," said Senator Schumer. "The Ed Walker Memorial Act will correct years of injustice for Western New York's nuclear workers. These Cold War heroes became dangerously ill developing the country's nuclear weapons program, and should not have to wait a minute longer for help."

Over 800 former Bethlehem Steel workers or their survivors have filed claims for compensation under the federal program for employees of Department of Energy and contractors who have developed debilitating or fatal diseases due to work-related exposure to radioactive material.

"The former employees at Bethlehem Steel have been neglected for far too long, and should not have to scale a mountain of red tape or prove the un-provable before receiving the compensation they deserve," said Senator Gillibrand. "These unsung heroes unknowingly sacrificed their health and wellbeing to advance our Cold War efforts during a critical time in our nation's history. This legislation is a fitting way to honor the memory of Ed Walker, a man who fought so hard to help all of those affected at Bethlehem."

"These workers are heroes from the Cold War era who have suffered with illnesses for decades and deserve just compensation for the sacrifices they made to protect our country," said Congressman Lee. "This legislation will make many former Bethlehem steel employees eligible for benefits they should have been able to receive for years now."

"These former Bethlehem Steel employees helped defend and secure our country for future generations, and now we have an obligation to compensate them for this dangerous work which robbed them of their health," said Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter.  "The Ed Walker Memorial Act will go a long way towards ensuring that these workers get the assistance and benefits they deserve."

"This past weekend we observed Worker's Memorial Day and it's timely that we are introducing this bill to provide the compensation earned by the workers of Bethlehem Steel," said Congressman Eric Massa.  "I'm proud to stand with my colleagues of the Western New York Congressional Delegation in this just and bi-partisan cause."

From the 1940s through the 1960s workers at hundreds of facilities helped to build the nuclear arsenal that served as a deterrent to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Without adequate monitoring or protections, many of those workers were exposed to significant levels of radiation. The Bethlehem Steel site in Lackawanna, NY falls within the definition of an atomic weapons employer facility, however many of the records for this time are unavailable or incomplete.

Under EEOICP, qualifying employees whose claims are granted are entitled to $150,000 in compensation.  The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is responsible for determining each EEOICP site profile through "dose reconstruction," a scientific method that calculates the radiation exposure that an employee encountered depending upon his or her job within the facility.  NIOSH uses that dose reconstruction in combination with other factors (including the type of cancer that the employee has developed, as well as the length of time that has elapsed since exposure) to determine the probability that radiation exposure caused cancer development.  If the probability of causation is greater than or equal to 50 percent, the employee receives compensation; if it is less than 50 percent, the employee's petition is denied.  Payments to successful petitioners are then handled by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Of the 804 claims that have been filed, 393 cases have been denied, and the claimants and their families are left frustrated that the information they provided in the lengthy application processes were not given the credence they deserved.  Significant problems exist with NIOSH's assessment of the claims because very little data exists from the Bethlehem Steel site, as the plant closed long ago.  The lack of data has made the dose reconstruction process extremely difficult.  As a result, the Bethlehem Steel claimants and their families have petitioned the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health for a Special Exposure Cohort (SEC) designation.  An SEC designation would qualify all valid applicants for compensation without the problematic dose reconstruction procedures.  However, this petition has been held up for several years because of disputes over whether the validity of surrogate data used from another contractor site, Simonds Tool and Saw, was a proper source to reconstruct doses.  This bill would amend the criteria by which employees can be added to a SEC. Under this bill, the Bethlehem facility would be added to the SEC, and therefore eliminating the dose reconstruction process entirely for Bethlehem workers.  The bill also automatically adds workers from other facilities to the SEC if their facility has inadequate data.   If a person has an eligible cancer and worked at a facility when weapons work was performed, and if the facility does not have sufficient data to provide accurate dose reconstructions, their cancer is presumed to have been caused by workplace exposure and the person's claim is paid. Under the legislation, workers would be added to a special cohort if:

  • They worked at an eligible facility for an aggregate of at least 250 days, and;
  • Fewer than 50 percent of the total number of the workers at the facility were individually monitored on a regular basis for exposure to internal and external ionizing radiation using reliable methods under a formal health physics program or;
  • Individual internal and external exposure records for radiation are nonexistent or are not available, or;
  • To the extent that a portion of individual internal or external records are available for that period from such facility, the exposure to radiation at such facility cannot be reliably determined for greater than 2/3 percent of workers.

This legislation was named in honor of Ed Walker, a former Bethlehem Steel employee, who was exposed to radiation while working at the plant from 1951 to 1954.  Mr. Walker, founder of the Bethlehem Steel Action Group, lost his fight with cancer in 2008.  Ed is survived by his wife Joyce Walker, who with other members of the Action Group continues to advocate for fair compensation for exposed Bethlehem Steel workers and their families.