Wednesday, January 9, 2008

NUMEC workers win special status

January 3, 2008

Former Alle-Kiski area nuclear workers have received final approval as a special class nearly guaranteeing many of them payment from the federal government for covered illnesses.

“It’s long overdue for the workers and their survivors,” said Patty Ameno, a Leechburg environmental activist who co-petitioned for the special status for workers of the defunct Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC).

One of the early supporters of the local worker campaign, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, added: “I’m pleased by this decision. It removes a significant hurdle for former Apollo NUMEC workers to receive the compensation and health care they rightfully deserve.”

Former workers from NUMEC and its successors, including Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) in Apollo, now are considered a “special exposure cohort” class — the government’s term for a group of employees who sustained prolonged exposure to nuclear radiation.

Congress had until Saturday to act on a recommendation made Nov. 29 by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt that the workers receive special status from Congress. Leavitt made the decision following the recommendation of two boards.

Because Congress didn’t act, Leavitt’s recommendation became final.

Final approval was confirmed Wednesday by a spokeswoman with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The workers are covered by the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA), which provides compensation and benefits to employees who became ill from working in the nuclear weapons industry.

Representatives from the EEOICPA program will visit the Alle-Kiski Valley again in February to meet with workers to discuss their claims, according to David SanLorenzo, manager of the EEOICPA resource center outside of Buffalo.

Former workers and their survivors are urged to telephone EEOICPA to check the status of their claims or enter a new claim.

“We’ll explain what they’ll need in terms of verification of employment and illness,” he said.

NUMEC is the 25th class of workers from 19 former atomic weapons employers in the country to gain special exposure status.

The EEOICPA program has paid out $3 billion on claims to more than 32,000 workers across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.Nationwide, there are 362 facilities with employees who are eligible for the special payments.

“I personally feel that the government should pay every NUMEC employee who worked there regardless of their health status because of the amount of exposure they had,” Ameno said. “It’s not a matter if they get sick, it’s a matter of when. And that company paid peanuts to those workers who put their life on the line.”

The Apollo site received the special designation because of the lack of historical records, questionable health monitoring by a contractor and worker overexposure to radiation, according to a NIOSH report.

The company held numerous government contracts to produce nuclear fuel for submarines and other nuclear products for the military.

The designation will nearly guarantee automatic acceptance of claims from NUMEC employees who develop one of 22 specific cancers and worked at NUMEC in Apollo for at least 250 days from Jan. 1, 1957, to Dec. 31, 1983.

Workers and their survivors are eligible for a $150,000 tax-free payment from the government and coverage of medical expenses. Former employees with beryllium disease will continue to file through the traditional program.

A former worker, disgusted with the denial of his and other NUMEC claims, petitioned for special status for all NUMEC workers a few years ago and was initially rejected.

A kidney cancer survivor, Rich Parler, 62, of Coraopolis turned to Richard Miller, an early supporter of the EEOICPA legislation and policy analyst for the Government Accountability Project.

The GAP is a government watchdog group that in 2002 conducted a preliminary review of NUMEC worker records for a Valley News Dispatch news story.

The review found repeated health violations and a failure to correct problems.

Parler gathered more firepower with support from Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Philadelphia, and Murtha, and enlisted the help of Ameno. Parler, Ameno, and former NUMEC engineer Tom Haley of Allegheny Township took their cause on the road, testifying before a NIOSH panel of health experts just outside of Chicago several months ago, on the working conditions and the radiological exposure to all employees.

No comments: