Stirring Up the Toxic Dust


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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

“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.”