Tonawanda News

January 26, 2013

Factory worker retirees' claims supported

Staff reports
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — A bid by a group of local factory workers to obtain compensation for health problems they believe resulted from exposure to toxic uranium dust received a boost this week from a federal lawmaker representing Western New York.

U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Niagara Falls and Buffalo, issued a letter to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, asking officials there to take action on behalf of Bethlehem Steel retirees who worked in the Lackawanna plant from 1952 to 1976. 

In his letter delivered to NIOSH officials Thursday, Higgins to “move swiftly” to extend the “residual contamination period,” a move that would allow retirees and their families to obtain compensation for illnesses they believed were tied to the type of work they did while on the job at the steel plant. 

Workers who were employed at Bethlehem Steel and other Niagara-area plants, including Hooker Electrochemical and Electro Metallurgical in Niagara Falls, have for years been lobbying federal officials for compensation as a result of their exposure to workplace radiation during the 1940s and 1950s. Many of those factory workers attribute various illnesses they acquired to their on-the-job exposure during the Cold War Era. 

In 2010, the Secretary of Health and Human Services finally granted a Special Exposure Cohort for those who worked at Bethlehem Steel, between 1949-1952, while uranium was actively rolled.

Workers have since presented additional evidence which they say shows inadequate cleanup and exposure occurred well beyond 1952 and that no serious mitigation was undertaken until 1976. In August, at the request of Higgins and others in the federal delegation, representatives from NIOSH met with retired steel workers in WNY to receive firsthand accounts from witnesses who worked at the plant. 

Higgins helped organize a meeting in August that allowed NIOSH officials to hear firsthand accounts from a group of retired Bethlehem Steel workers. He said those workers have provided “mounting evidence” that the Lackawanna rolling mill was subject to an “inadequate clean-up of uranium rolling” conducted during 1949 to 1952 as well as “further government-sanctioned” uranium rolling that took place “past that time period.” 

In his letter, Higgins called upon officials at NIOSH to “strongly consider these facts” and to extend the “residual contamination period” for exposure at the site until 1976, when he said records indicate a “proper” clean-up commenced. 

“It has now been six months since that meeting and we have received no demonstrable progress from your agency on your efforts to extend the residual contamination period, allowing these retired workers and their survivors the opportunity to receive compensation for deadly illnesses caused by this exposure which our government has been too slow to recognize,” Higgins wrote. 

To date, Higgins’ office said Bethlehem Steel retirees who worked during eligible years and their family members have received more than $206 million in compensation and paid medical expenses. 

Higgins met with members of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees Chapter 4-6 this week to discuss his continuing call for NIOSH to expand eligibility to include Bethlehem Steel employees who worked at the facility through 1976. 

Lew Webber, a local advocate and President of the Bethlehem Steel Chapter for SOAR, said the effort must continue to make sure former Bethlehem Steel workers and their families receive the “justice” they deserve. 

 “I am a Bethlehem Steel retiree with no claim in this matter other than seeking justice for our workers and their families,” Webber said.