In our summer 2011 newsletter, we wrote about the origin of The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) and our long struggle to obtain benefits on behalf of a former Linde worker who died in 1993. In that article, we explained the difference between qualifying for the benefits on the basis of the Individual Dose Reconstruction Program and qualifying for benefits as a member of a class of employees designated as a Special Exposure Cohort (SEC). Our newsletter article also reported an important development for former and retired Linde workers, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommended to Congress, in April 2011, that the government establish a SEC for Linde plant claimants who worked at the plant between 1954 and 1969. (In 2005, Linde Ceramics workers received SEC status for the period from October 1, 1942 to October 31, 1947. During this time period, the facility actively processed uranium ore for the Atomic Energy Commission.)
We now have the pleasure to report that SEC status has also been recommended for men and women who worked at Linde between 1947 and 1954. Once this recommendation becomes final later this year, it will close the gap between the SEC for 1942 to 1947 and the SEC for 1954 to 1969, and establish SEC coverage from 1942 through 1969.
In order to qualify for benefits under a Special Exposure Cohort, a claimant must be a current or former employee of an atomic weapons facility or a select surviving family member of a deceased former employee; the affected individual must have worked a minimum of 250 days at a designated site during a specific time frame; and the affected individual must have been diagnosed with at least one of the twenty-two recognized cancers caused by radiation exposure.
Now that the situation has been remedied at Linde Ceramics, it is incumbent on the government to act soon to address the same legitimate demands of former and retired employees of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation in Lackawanna. As of 2010, only those former Bethlehem Steel employees who worked at the Lackawanna facility between January 1, 1949 and December 31, 1952, have been awarded SEC status. Because of the 250 day requirement, a worker who began at the steel plant at any time after the beginning of 1952 or later is ineligible, under the statute, to receive the $150,000 benefit.
Claimants from Bethlehem Steel are being treated unfairly, and the federal government, through the various agencies involved in administering the Act, should remedy this injustice. Unfortunately, the workers at the time were not told that the plant was processing hazardous uranium ore, nor were they provided with any protective equipment. The currently established SEC for Bethlehem Steel encompasses four consecutive years, yet the plant processed many times more uranium during 1952 than it did during the three preceding years, combined. Thus, men who started work at the plant part-way into 1952 were probably subjected to a radiation hazard significantly greater than that which prevailed earlier, when the rate of production was lower, yet still cannot qualify for the benefit, because of the 250 day requirement.
Given the intensity of the radiation hazard to which the workers in 1952 were exposed, and their resulting increased risk for the development of a radiogenic cancer, activists from Bethlehem Steel are calling for the period encompassed by the SEC to be significantly extended. They point out that the areas where the uranium was processed and the equipment used for that purpose were never properly decontaminated. The same mills used to roll uranium billets during the years 1949 through the end of 1952, although highly contaminated, remained in use to roll other metals long after the completion of the Manhattan Project. Countless workers were exposed to this dangerous residual radiation, and they remain ineligible to file claims under the Act. The radiation hazard was so intense and the contamination so pervasive, that all workers, regardless of job title or department, were affected.
Happily, there is cause for some optimism. Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) and Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are urging the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to perform an extensive review of the conditions at Bethlehem Steel in the years following 1952.