Stirring Up the Toxic Dust

They turned Uncle Sam's uranium into atom bombs, and the work made them sick. Now they've got a new champion—Hillary Clinton

Eugene Ruchalski probably never dreamed he'd say anything nice about Hillary Clinton. A lifelong Republican, he served five proud terms as the highway superintendent in his hometown of Boston Hills, a Buffalo suburb. At 68, and set in his ways, he admits to entertaining conservative ideas about what he calls "women in politics."

Yet lately, his opinion of New York's junior senator has been changing. He counts himself among a select group of Buffalo-area residents for whom Clinton has become a crusader. Ruchalski's father was one of thousands of employees exposed to radiation at 36 mills in western New York. In his case, it was at the local Bethlehem Steel plant, now defunct, in the late 1940s and early '50s. Many of those workers got sick.

Now, when Ruchalski meets with the others, he hears about all the work the senator is doing to bring his family justice. "If she can deliver for us," he says, somewhat sheepishly, "she can guarantee herself a vote." His.

(From left) Edwin Walker, Theresa Sweeney, and Dorothy Jaworski: Fighting for workers made sick from handling uranium for atomic bombs
photo: Rose Mattrey
(From left) Edwin Walker, Theresa Sweeney, and Dorothy Jaworski: Fighting for workers made sick from handling uranium for atomic bombs

Anyone wondering why Senator Clinton has gotten so popular upstate, with positive numbers pushing 70 percent, need look no further than the Bethlehem Steel families. Their lives changed for good in 2000, when the federal government admitted that workers in 350 mills nationwide had "rolled" uranium to make nuclear bombs—but never knew it. On lunch breaks at Bethlehem, they blithely sat around on piles of the radioactive stuff, eating their sandwiches and inhaling a deadly dust.

Under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act, created by Congress, retired workers who got sick, or their survivors, could apply for a $150,000 payment from the government. To date, 1,218 Bethlehem families have filed claims with the Labor Department and the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety, the two agencies that administer the program. The old Bethlehem Steel plants—located in South Buffalo, Lackawanna, and Hamburg—have drawn the most applications not only from New York, but nationwide.

The response has not been great. Of the current claims, only half, or 632, have made it through the first screening for eligibility. Of those, up to 383 claims—more than 60 percent—have been denied.

"Obviously, the program is just not working for these people," says Dan Utech, Clinton's main staffer on the issue. This month, his boss plans to file a bill that would make it easier for the families to collect. "The senator believes it took too long for the government to accept responsibility in the first place. Now, it's getting to be ridiculous."

Clinton's role as champion for nuclear-weapons workers may come as a surprise to those who remember her old ties to the dreaded Wal-Mart. As Arkansas first lady, she served six years on the board of the union-busting behemoth, notorious during her directorship for alleged child labor abuses. Wal-Mart has since become corporate enemy number one, causing some Democrats to fear that Clinton's onetime affiliation will scare away the labor vote if she makes a bid for the White House in 2008.

But if her advocacy on Bethlehem Steel is any indication, Clinton is now trying to build up a solid record of defending worker rights—particularly when it comes to health and safety. Jim Melius, of the Laborers Union, in Albany, has followed the plight of these families for years now, and he finds her work on their behalf telling. "It says that she's willing to stand up and fight and try to fix the problem." And because of her new bill, Melius adds, "The story with Bethlehem isn't over."

That story began in 1949, at the start of the Cold War, when the military was racing to make the atomic bomb. Mills and foundries dominated the Buffalo landscape, yet one company reigned supreme: Bethlehem Steel. Its facilities spanned three miles along Lake Erie, with state-of-the-art equipment and a workforce of 22,000.

"Everybody worked at the steel mill," says Frank Panasuk, a retired detective from Hamburg. A large man with huge, square-framed glasses, he drove to the old Bethlehem complex on a recent Wednesday and along the way listed relatives who worked there—his father, his father's five brothers, his mother's five brothers.

Most of the 1,700-acre site sits vacant and weeded-over today, abandoned when the company went belly-up in the '80s. But the bar mill where workers rolled steel and, for four years during the Cold War, uranium, still stands. Now a galvanizing outfit, the building looks tired, its rusted siding barely hanging on. Driving on a utility road, Panasuk spots some workers toiling over a fire.

"Boy," he says, taking in the scene of power lines and railroad tracks, "this brings back memories."

Not all of those memories are good. Panasuk's dad died in 1987, just weeks after developing stomach cancer. Before that, he suffered from colon cancer. He spent his entire career at the mill, serving as a metal inspector for 35 years. The tenure did Panasuk's dad proud; it has haunted his family.

Ever since 2000, when the government came clean about its atomic-weapons program, people have had to come to grips with the weight of a decades-old secret at Bethlehem. From 1949 to 1952, the mill did contract work for the country's fledgling nuclear arsenal, rolling billets of uranium into rods for reactors. But few knew the true nature of the project—and those who did had to keep quiet. All the while, workers handled toxic material. They pressed it, shaped it, ground it, and squeezed it, unwittingly.

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