Throughout the second half of 2000, Congress had under consideration legislation which would finally provide compensation for workers exposed to excessive levels of radiation in the atomic weapons industry. This was a long overdue development. Many people have become sick and died as result of their exposure to radioactive materials. In all of these cases, although the government and its contractors were aware of the fatal potential of this exposure, the workers were unaware of the potentially hazardous effects.
On October 30, 2000, former President Clinton signed a law providing free medical care and $150,000 to cancer victims unknowingly exposed to hazardous levels of radiation while working at the nation’s nuclear weapons plants. The legislation is known as The Energy Employee Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000. It may provide compensation for thousands of previously uncompensated workers. The law has significant implications for former employees of various worksites in the Western New York area that were part of the Manhattan Project, including the Linde Division of Union Carbide in Tonawanda. Although the initial legislation was signed by President Clinton last year, the program has not been fully implemented, and it is unlikely to be fully implemented before the end of this summer. Hopefully, by that time, the Department of Labor will have drafted and published eligibility rules, including claim forms to apply for compensation.
One valuable feature of the law is that it allows injured workers to file claims for state workers compensation and at the same time also receive benefits under the new federal law. This applies as well to families of deceased workers who may apply for lump sum benefits of $150,000.
Recently, John Ned Lipsitz met with a group of retired workers from the Linde Division of Union Carbide and discussed various aspects of the law. Our office plans to coordinate the filing of dozens, perhaps even hundreds of claims by former Linde workers suffering from cancer likely related to their past exposure to excessive levels of radiation.
These workers will face formidable obstacles. Because Linde ceased processing uranium, radium and thorium at the close of the Manhattan Project in the early 1950’s, individual claimants will have to provide information that will allow the Department of Labor or the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to reconstruct or estimate the actual doses of radioactive material to which they were exposed. Essentially, at the Linde facility, the radioactive waste resulting from the processing of uranium used to make the atom bomb was never properly remediated, and generations of workers following the Second World War have been exposed unnecessarily and without their knowledge to excessive levels of radioactive dust. These airborne exposures, however, were not measured at the time they were taking place. Therefore, it is necessary to estimate the dose based on available historical information. The estimated dose will then be considered together with the type of cancer which forms the basis of each claim. Since some types of cancer are more closely related to the effects of exposure to excessive levels of radiation than other types of cancer, a claim will either succeed or fail based on a review of all the facts.
Limited information is currently available through the Department of Energy. If you would like to register your name with the Department of Energy so that eventually you will receive notice about implementation of the program, call 877-447-9756.
We will make available a map of the Linde property showing those buildings which were highly contaminated. This may be used to assist potential claimants in completing their applications for federal compensation later this summer.
One important thing to keep in mind is the impact of other risk factors on the development of particular cancers. It is easier to demonstrate a causal connection to a toxic exposure when other causes for the development of the cancer are ruled out. For example, a claim of lung cancer is much stronger in an individual without a history of smoking cigarettes. Similarly, a claim for colon cancer is easier to prove in an individual without a family history of colon cancer.