Today U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand today released a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Director of the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) John Howard, calling for reform of the compensation program for nuclear workers at Bethlehem Steel, Linde Steel and other former New York atomic weapons production facilities. Schumer and Gillibrand had been working to reform the compensation system through legislation due to the hesitation of the previous Presidential administration and previous Advisory Boards to change, but with a new chair and four new members, the Senators felt that the change may finally be able to be made administratively, avoiding the often times slow legislative process.
“Through a simple rule change, justice can finally be delivered to the nuclear workers of Western New York,” said Schumer. “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.”
“New York’s former nuclear workers 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. Those affected must have an opportunity for their case to be heard.”
The petition the Senators are supporting would set up a “Special Exposure Cohert” for local nuclear weapons sites. Being added to a cohort means that employees do not have to go through a “dose reconstruction” process. Instead, if a person has an eligible cancer and worked at a facility when weapons work was performed, their cancer is presumed to have been caused by workplace exposure and the person’s claim is paid. Put simply, these cold war heroes are given the benefit of the doubt.
Under current law, claims for compensation are decided by the Department of Labor (DOL) and NIOSH by using available records about work conditions and employment history. Using these records, NIOSH estimates the radiation doses received by each worker and then determines whether that radiation exposure was likely to have caused the worker’s illness. This “dose reconstruction” process has been time-consuming and controversial, particularly at facilities like Bethlehem Steel where workers did not wear individual radiation monitors, and there was minimal monitoring of ambient radiation. For Bethlehem Steel workers, compensation decisions have been made using a radiation exposure model that relies on data from another facility—the Simonds Saw facility in Lockport, New York. This process has resulted in far too many denied claims.
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.
Western New York has one of the largest concentrations of facilities involved in nuclear weapons production-related activities in the nation, yet continues to be severely underserved by the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICPA). Former employees of the following businesses could be eligible for health compensation: Electro Metallurgical (Niagara Falls), Hooker Electrochemical (Niagara Falls), Carborundum Company (Niagara Falls), Lake Ontario Ordinance Works (Niagara Falls), Simonds Saw and Steel Co (Lockport), Titanium Alloys Manufacturing (Niagara Falls), Ashland Oil (Tonawanda), Bethlehem Steel (Lackawanna), Bliss and Laughlin Steel (Buffalo), Linde Air Products (Buffalo), Linde Ceramics Plant (Tonawanda), Seaway Industrial Park (Tonawanda), Utica St. Warehouse (Buffalo), the West Valley Demonstration Project (West Valley).