During the 1940s and 1950s, the United States government established atomic weapons facilities throughout the country where workers were regularly exposed to radioactive materials. These facilities comprised the Manhattan Project. After the war these facilities were never properly decontaminated despite repeated efforts to reduce residual radiation levels. The residual radioactive material contaminated the buildings which returned to civilian production and contaminated water and soil. Returning soldiers came back to work at factories such as Bethlehem Steel and Linde Ceramics. Over the ensuing decades, these workers were exposed to hazardous levels of radiation and many of them developed cancers of various sorts.
In 2000 Congress passed legislation known as the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA). The purpose of the law was to provide compensation and medical benefits for workers who have developed cancers as a result of their exposure to radiation. Workers who developed radiogenic cancers are eligible to file a claim in one of two ways:
- Submitting a claim under the Individual Dose Reconstruction Program
- Submitting a claim under a previously designated Special Exposure Cohort (SEC)
Proposed Linde SEC Petition time periods are:
- November 1947 – December 1953
- January 1954 – July 2006
- The current Linde SEC designation is from October 1, 1942 – October 31, 1947
To file a claim through Individual Dose Reconstruction, the claimant must submit work records proving employment and medical records showing the development of a radiation-related cancer. Next, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reviews the claim. If the illness is found to be at least 50% attributable to radiation exposure from the Manhattan Project, the claim is accepted and the worker is entitled to compensation. However, dose reconstruction is time consuming, highly technical and not necessarily based on sufficiently accurate data.
The second way to file for compensation is under the Special Exposure Cohort (SEC) Program. In order to qualify, an employee must have at least one of 22 “specified cancers” and must have worked at a recognized facility for a minimum of 250 days during a time period specified by the SEC.
If a claim is approved by either a dose reconstruction or under an SEC, the worker is entitled to $150,000 in compensation.
Although there were other Manhattan Project sites, Linde Ceramics in Tonawanda and Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna were the principal places in Western New York where the government processed materials used to make the atomic bomb. To date, only Linde has received SEC status and only for the period 1942-1947. There are many retired employees who went to work at Linde Ceramics after 1947 who suffer from the same devastating cancers. Their claims are usually rejected for compensation because they cannot file a claim under the existing SEC and because they fail to satisfy the more stringent, yet often arbitrary requirements of the dose reconstruction program.
Attorney John Ned Lipsitz at Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford, LLC is working as part of a team of local volunteers who are preparing to file petitions for Special Exposure Cohort status at Linde for the years 1948-1953 and 1954-2000.
Currently, only 149 of the 478 claims arising out of Linde Ceramics have been paid. By expanding the SEC time period, employees otherwise denied compensation should receive it.
Despite their best efforts, former workers of Bethlehem Steel have not yet been able to convince the government to grant them SEC status for any period of time.
At the height of the cold war, 1949-1952, Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, New York was under contract with the federal government to roll uranium rods for nuclear reactors. Workers at Bethlehem Steel did not know they were working with uranium, let alone that they were being exposed to radiation. Now, years later many workers have discovered they have cancer.
NIOSH is currently reviewing a SEC status petition for the Bethlehem Steel facility. If SEC status is granted, then employees that worked at Bethlehem Steel during the designated SEC time period would be compensated automatically for the development of a radiogenic cancer provided the employee worked at the facility for at least 250 days and developed one of the specified 22 “presumptive” cancers.
As of May 2007, more than 700 claims were filed by workers stemming from exposure to radiation as a result of their work with uranium at the Bethlehem Steel plant. Less than half have been compensated.
Many dedicated Americans worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project, and its aftermath, at Linde, Bethlehem Steel and elsewhere throughout the country. They were unwittingly exposed to varying levels of radiation day after day, for years. These workers were systematically lied to about radiation exposure risks and consequently were never provided with adequate safety equipment to reduce their radiation exposure risk. Now, many of them suffer from cancer and the government is turning them away for compensation to which they are entitled. Some have died while waiting.