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

Former employees and their families have had to face the reality that the government exposed them to some of the most dangerous matter on earth—"basically poisoned these folks," as one Clinton aide puts it.

At Bethlehem, as opposed to other facilities, the uranium was especially deadly. According to former workers and government officials, the company did nothing to control radiation levels. Employees had no body suits to protect them, no badges to monitor exposure. They didn't even have masks. Worse still, they had to endure the constant presence of uranium dust.

"For years I inhaled that dust," relays Russ Early, 81, a Vernon Downs resident with a shock of white hair and a feisty disposition. A cancer survivor, he operated a crane in the bar mill, laboring there for 43 years, soaking up the dust. It blurred his vision and scratched his throat. It settled on his food and in his coffee. It got so hot it could burn a blister on the skin the size of a silver dollar.

(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

Now that the Bethlehem secret has been revealed, the dust and its sting finally make sense to folks. And so do other things. Like all the talk in the late '40s and early '50s of a "government project" at the mill. Or the unexplained sightings of guards watching over the rods. Or the army trucks coming and going on weekends.

And then there are all those cancer deaths. Edwin Walker, a genial 71-year-old from Lackawanna, held a Bethlehem post as a bricklayer from 1951 to 1954, during the uranium project. He was one of 15 men in the so-called "hot gang," the group that patched holes in furnaces. Today, only he and one other are still living. Everyone else was killed by cancer. Nor have Walker and his colleague avoided the disease—he has bladder cancer, his friend colon.

"I consider that more than a coincidence," he says. "We are victims of the government's secrecy."

Walker and dozens more say the government is victimizing them again—this time, by refusing to compensate them for their illnesses. When the agencies set up the compensation program, they presented the claims process as simple. Bethlehem workers, or their survivors, could apply if they worked at the mill during the uranium rollings and if they got certain cancers—22 in all, including of the lungs, skin, colon, and pancreas. In return, they'd get $150,000.

But it turns out the company didn't keep records of which employees worked at the bar mill during the uranium procedures, and the records it did keep are incomplete. As a result, says Larry Elliott of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the agency has had to develop a formula, called "dose reconstruction," to evaluate claims.

It's a complicated model, but here's the gist: NIOSH uses software to predict a person's risk for developing cancer, based on exposure. It takes into account such factors as the radiation type, where the person worked, how long shifts lasted, and so on. NIOSH relies on the few existing records about the uranium work at Bethlehem, Elliott says, and the formula skews toward the inhalation of uranium dust, thus putting a premium on lung and kidney cancer, and leukemia.

Critics argue the formula is flawed. They say NIOSH doesn't have enough information to accurately determine individual dosages. When first creating the formula, officials failed to interview retired employees or to visit the bar mill. Instead, they substituted data from a neighboring mill, in Lockport, New York.

"The model assumes that you can be precise about an individual's exposure," says Melius, of the Laborers Union, who sits on an advisory board overseeing the process. But because of the minimal records, he explains, "It's an almost impossible task to piece together."

The result? A lot of people have had their claims unfairly denied—at least, that's what Early thinks. He handled the uranium, and has suffered from rectal cancer for 17 years. In 1987, he underwent surgery in which three tumors, his appendix, and his gall bladder were removed. Yet he's been denied compensation—twice.

"They said it wasn't bad enough," he says, referring to his estimated dosage. Lifting his Hawaiian shirt and poking at his colostomy bag, he asks, "See this? You call that not bad enough?"

The denials have left people angry and bitter. Workers see colleagues with lung cancer getting paid, while they, diagnosed with other types, are not. They tell tales of employees stationed in buildings far from the bar mill receiving checks, all because they have lung or kidney cancer.

"It's wrong," says Walker, who has filed three claims, all denied. "It's unjust, and the government should own up to it."

To that end, the families have formed two groups—the Bethlehem Steel Radiation Victims and Survivors, and the Bethlehem Steel Claimants Action Group— numbering some 300 members in total. They've taken their fight public, protesting outside government offices, writing letters, and making themselves a general pain for bureaucrats. Last year they scored big when a 199-page audit found serious flaws in NIOSH's system for evaluating their claims.

NIOSH's Elliott admits the audit has forced the agency to review its ways. But he also insists the process is working. "We've built a solid method," he argues, adding that none of the 300-plus claims denied have been overturned on appeal. "We're confident that we are not missing any claimant who really deserves to be compensated."

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