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

Clinton's office has heard that line before, repeatedly, since the senator first took up this crusade in 2003. She got involved after her Buffalo staff began fielding calls from constituents and she sent an aide to the Bethlehem claimants' meetings. In December of that year she met them herself at a special gathering in Hamburg.

There, she listened to 50 or so people recounting their experiences. People like Theresa Sweeney, of Lackawanna, whose husband died of pancreatic cancer, and who explained the trouble she'd endured when administrators challenged the legitimacy of her 30-year marriage. Or Cindy Mellody, of South Buffalo, whose dad died of "probable lung carcinoma," and who told of the "huge injustice" of having her claim denied. Her father served in World War II, got captured, escaped, and hid in the jungle for two years; he returned to New York only to get a job at a plant where the government exposed him to uranium.

(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

"These stories hit you up front," says the senator's western New York regional director. The staffer says the senator was so outraged she charged the Buffalo office with documenting as many cases as possible. It now has a stack of about 200.

Early on, Clinton tried pressuring agency heads to fix problems. In May 2003, for example, she pushed for a provision calling for NIOSH and the Labor Department to file a report with Congress, explaining the delays in processing claims at Bethlehem, as well as other New York facilities. The measure passed; the report has yet to be drafted.

Then came the letters. In December 2003, she wrote to President Bush, calling on him to implement long-ignored legal requirements that would help Bethlehem claimants. "The longer the Administration delays," she wrote, the "more workers will die without having their claim resolved." Twelve months later, she issued a statement demanding NIOSH review its methods. The NIOSH audit, she said, "clearly indicates that claims that have been denied need to be re-evaluated."

Last January, she wrote to the Labor Department, along with Senator Chuck Schumer and western New York representatives, demanding that Labor officials search harder for uranium records at Bethlehem.

"She has been dogged in her oversight," says Richard Miller of the Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C., which tracks the program. "It's not simply say one thing and do another with her."

These days, Clinton has come to believe that the program is broken, her staff says, and that legislation is the only way to fix it. She's set to introduce a bill that would make it easier for Bethlehem claimants to get paid. The measure would set minimum standards for records needed to evaluate claims. Under the bill, employees who did nuclear-weapons work at plants without such records—as is the case at Bethlehem—would join a "special exposure cohort."

That's a term in the original law, reserved for workers from facilities where the government lacks basic information and thus cannot reconstruct dosages. In effect, the bill would order the government to presume that workers in this status got cancer from radiation exposure and to pay them.

Because the measure mandates spending, Clinton's staff says, it won't be attractive during a time of huge deficits and tax cuts.

U.S. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, of Niagara Falls, will co-sponsor a House companion bill to Clinton's legislation, and she predicts resistance. Yet Slaughter, who has worked on this issue since the mid '90s, sees two advantages. For one, its proposals amount to what she calls "basic decency." For another, Hillary Clinton is on it. As she explains, "I don't know what we'd do without her, because she performs."

For now, all the Bethlehem families can do is wait. Many, like Dorothy Jaworski of West Seneca, see the senator's bill as the only source of hope, the only way they'll be able to collect what they deserve. Jaworski got a December 2003 letter from the Labor Department announcing she qualified for the $150,000 because her late husband "had sustained leukemia and pancreatic cancer in the performance of his duty," only to have the offer rescinded, an apparent "mistake," five months later.

If it weren't for Senator Clinton, Jaworski says, "this whole issue would be dead." No matter what happens to the bill, she appreciates the senator standing up for her. She believes she'd have a check in hand if Hillary Clinton were in charge. "With Hillary on our side," Jaworski says, "I have faith."

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