In 1939, the United States government began a series of experiments, later known as the Manhattan Project, with the goal of producing atomic weapons and power plants. After the completion of the Manhattan Project, many of the facilities involved in atomic weapons production were not properly decontaminated. For decades, workers in these facilities were exposed to hazardous levels of radiation and many developed various types of cancer. Several locations in Western New York manufactured components for atomic weapons, including Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, the Linde Ceramics plant in Tonawanda and Simonds Saw and Steel in Lockport.
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Congress passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) in 2000. The purpose of EEOICPA was to provide monetary compensation and medical benefits to atomic weapons workers who developed cancer as a result of radiation exposure, as well as to workers employed by atomic weapons producers who have developed chronic beryllium disease. Under this law, claims can be filed in one of two ways: (1) submitting a claim under the Individual Dose Reconstruction Program, or (2) submitting a claim under a Special Exposure Cohort. In order to file a claim under the Individual Dose Reconstruction Program, a claimant must submit records proving relevant employment and the development of radiogenic cancer. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) then reviews the claim. If NIOSH finds the cancer to be at least 50% attributable to radiation exposure, the claim is accepted and the claimant will receive compensation. Individual dose reconstruction is a lengthy technical process that may not necessarily use accurate or relevant data.
The Special Exposure Cohort (SEC) program provides a less complicated claims procedure. Under the SEC program, a claimant must have at least one of twenty-two specified cancers, such as thyroid or lung cancer, and must have worked a minimum of 250 days at a designated SEC site during a specified time frame. An approved claimant is entitled to $150,000 in compensation, as well as related medical expenses, under either dose reconstruction or an SEC.
Between 1949 and 1952, Bethlehem Steel rolled uranium fuel rods for nuclear reactors under a contract with the federal government. Workers were not informed that they were working with uranium or that they were being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. On July 14, 2010, former workers at Bethlehem Steel were granted Special Exposure Cohort status for the period from January 1, 1949 to December 31, 1952. Since Bethlehem Steel employees were previously only eligible to file claims under the dose reconstruction program, a majority of claimants have been denied compensation. As of September 2010, Bethlehem Steel workers had filed 1,815 cases under the EEOICPA. Five hundred twenty nine (529) cases were denied outright, without being sent for dose reconstruction. An additional five hundred seventy nine (579) cases were denied after review, with a vast majority of those cases rejected due to the government’s claim that the cancer was not work related. Only 411 cases have been approved for compensation.
In 2005, Linde Ceramics workers received SEC status for the period from October 1, 1942 to October 31, 1947, which is when the facility actively processed uranium ore. Many employees who started work at Linde after 1947 have been afflicted with cancers known to be caused by radiation exposure. These workers are ineligible to file a claim under the Special Exposure Cohort. Instead, these workers are forced to file under the dose reconstruction program, which has proven to be an exercise in frustration for many of them. Of 473 cases filed under the EEOICPA for Linde Ceramics, 241 cases have been referred for dose reconstruction. Of those 241 cases, just 85 cases have been accepted for compensation. Attorney John Lipsitz of Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford, LLC recently appeared before the NIOSH Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health to advocate SEC status for all Linde workers through 2006.
For over sixty years, employees who worked at facilities involved in uranium processing for the federal government were exposed to hazardous levels of radiation. These workers were not informed of the dangerous conditions under which they were working, nor were they provided with the appropriate safety equipment. Many retirees and former workers have developed cancer from their exposure to radiation, and the government has wrongfully denied them the compensation and medical benefits to which they are entitled.