In the early 1940s, the United States government began a series of experiments, later known as the Manhattan Project, with the goal of manufacturing atomic weapons and power plants. After the end of World War II, the Atomic Energy Commission was created to establish civilian control over atomic energy development and weapons production. Several locations in Western New York manufactured components for atomic weapons, including Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna, the Linde Ceramics plant in Tonawanda and Simonds Saw and Steel in Lockport. For decades, those who worked in these facilities were exposed to hazardous levels of radiation, and many workers developed various types of cancers as a result of their work.
From 1948 to 1956, Simonds Saw and Steel rolled uranium and thorium rods under contract with the Atomic Energy Commission for use in power plants and nuclear weapons. Workers were not informed that they were working with uranium or that they were being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Later, surveys of the Simonds facility by the Army Corps of Engineers found radioactive contamination throughout the majority of the plant.
Over the years, many former employees of Simonds Saw and Steel, along with other industrial job sites that processed radioactive materials for the Atomic Energy Commission, have developed various types of cancers as a result of their exposure. In 2000, Congress passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP), which provides compensation to individuals who contracted certain types of illnesses due to their employment in a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility. This program is administered by the Department of Labor.
Under the EEOICP, The Department of Labor refers all claims for compensation related to radiation cancers to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for radiation dose reconstruction. The procedure for radiation dose reconstruction is problematic for several reasons: companies that processed radioactive materials may no longer exist; proper procedures for measurement of individual radiation doses may not have been followed; or, no such measurement ever took place. Additionally, records may have been destroyed, and in some cases, records may still be classified for national security reasons. If there is no dose record for the claimant on file with the Department of Energy, it is up to the claimant or their survivors to produce information supporting their claim. In many cases, this is very difficult. When NIOSH does not have specific records to refer to, it may use arbitrary data to reconstruct a claimant’s radiation dose. This reconstruction may not pertain to the claimant’s own experience, or from the specific worksite in question.
In order for a claim to be accepted under dose reconstruction, NIOSH must find that there is at least a fifty percent chance that the claimant’s cancer was caused by occupational radiation exposure. At the end of 2010, three-hundred thirty seven cases had been filed for compensation for cancers caused by exposure to radioactive materials at Simonds Saw and Steel. Of these cases, 100 were denied without being sent for dose reconstruction, because the illness was not a type covered under the EEOICP, or it was due to the inability of the claimant to establish their employment history. An additional 151 cases were denied after dose reconstruction, because NIOSH establishedthat the probability that the claimant’s cancer was related to their work with radioactive materials at less than fifty percent. Just seventy cases (twenty percent of all cases filed) have been accepted for compensation.
Under the Act which established the EEOICP, a Special Exposure Cohort (SEC) was established as another form of compensation. The Special Exposure Cohort (SEC) program provides a less complicated claims procedure. Under the SEC program, a claimant must have at least one of twenty-two specified cancers, such as thyroid or lung cancer, and must have worked a minimum of 250 days at a designated SEC site during a specified time frame. An approved claimant is entitled to $150,000 in compensation, as well as related medical expenses, under either dose reconstruction or an SEC.
On January 6, 2011, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius established a special exposure cohort for Simonds Saw and Steel employees who worked between January 1, 1948 and December 31, 1957, and who have contracted one of twenty-two specified cancers.
For more information on radiation exposure at Simonds Saw and Steel, the EEOICP, and Special Exposure Cohorts, please see:
- Department of Labor – Division of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation
- NIOSH Radiation Dose Reconstruction Program
- Department of Labor EEOICP Work Site Statistics for Simonds
- NIOSH Radiation Dose Reconstruction – Simonds Saw and Steel
- Special Exposure Cohort Information
- Special Exposure Cohort Specified Cancers