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Valley News Dispatch

Volunteer activists credited with getting $60M for former nuclear workers

Mary Ann Thomas
| Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, 4:33 p.m.
Hyde Park environmental activist Patty Ameno
Tribune-Review
Hyde Park environmental activist Patty Ameno
Tom Haley of Washington Township and Patty Ameno of Hyde Park at the funeral of NUMEC founder Zalman Shapiro on July 16, 2016 in Pittsburgh.
Tom Haley of Washington Township and Patty Ameno of Hyde Park at the funeral of NUMEC founder Zalman Shapiro on July 16, 2016 in Pittsburgh.

The volunteer efforts of a Hyde Park environmental activist and a retired Washington Township engineer helped about 300 former nuclear workers in the region collect $60 million from the federal government for cancers likely caused by their jobs.

A federal entitlement program that was enacted in 2000, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program pays $150,000 tax-free, plus medical benefits, to workers who became ill, because of their work for the government or contractors for nuclear weapons and Cold War-related work. The illnesses covered include diagnoses of one of 22 types of cancers.

But that program fell short in its early years for workers from the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) because many of the workers or their families couldn’t find the required medical records and the company couldn’t come up with the required documentation.

In addition to NUMEC, other workers are included in the program, among them former employees of Alcoa in New Kensington, Westinghouse Nuclear Fuels Division in Springdale Township and the Westinghouse Atomic Power Development plant in East Pittsburgh.

Zero worker claims initially approved

In September 2002, none of the 115 claims filed by NUMEC workers were approved. Historically, roughly about half of the claimants for the program in Pennsylvania worked at NUMEC, which produced nuclear fuel for submarines and other government projects. The plants in Apollo and Parks Township, which have been razed, operated from the late 1950s until 2004.

A number of NUMEC workers had cancers recognized by the Energy Employees program for being caused by overexposure to radiation.

After learning of their plight, the Tribune-Review’s Valley News Dispatch asked a Washington, D.C., nonprofit in 2002 to review NUMEC’s health records and documentation from Patty Ameno, a Hyde Park environmental activist.

The Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group for worker health and safety in the nuclear weapons industry, reviewed the newspaper’s information and secured more records through a Freedom of Information Act request to the federal government.

The preliminary review found that some NUMEC workers were exposed to radiation levels hundreds of times greater than the health standards in place at the time.

NUMEC exposures included: Workers at the Apollo plant’s incinerator in 1966 and 1967 received between eight to 40 times the lung burden for a 50-year committed dose. Personnel, who had already been exposed to excessive concentrations of radiation, received additional exposures to airborne plutonium in the mid-1960s. The government authority then, the Atomic Energy Commission, attributed the additional contamination to the company’s inadequate evaluations of airborne contaminants in restricted areas.

Going to Illinois

Ameno spearheaded a successful petition for NUMEC workers to receive a special designation, known as a “special cohort,” for workers to be automatically accepted into the program if they met certain criteria such as being diagnosed with one of 22 cancers and working for the company for at least 250 days.

She traveled to Naperville, Ill., in October 2007 to testify before the President’s Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health. Also traveling to testify was Tom Haley of Washington Township, a former NUMEC engineer and Richard Parler, another NUMEC worker.

“NUMEC was continually defiant in adhering to laws, regulations, directives, professional standards and worker health and safety standards and therefore habitually violated them,” Ameno said in her testimony.

Looking back now, Ameno says, “It’s been a long road. I hope in the scheme of things that it has allowed some semblance of comfort and vindication for the family of those former workers.”

Ameno credits her arsenal of company confidential documents that show many of the worker exposures. Workers gave Ameno the documents over the years. And a series of lawsuits, which she spearheaded against NUMEC and its successors, yielded even more documents.

Those lawsuits settled for $92 million against NUMEC’s successors, the Atlantic Richfield Co., and Babcock & Wilcox for wrongful death, personal injury and property damage from the nuclear plants’ emissions. The companies have always maintained that the plant operations didn’t cause the cancers or other damages.

Haley’s testimony included tales of potentially high worker exposures that weren’t reported by the company. The situation was sometimes made worse by the workers themselves, he added, when they knowingly compromised their urine tests so they could continue to work in the plant.

Haley and Ameno were happy to include the workers in the NUMEC administration offices for the compensation program, where Haley testified there were radioactive materials present.

“I am very pleased to see our efforts have helped so many of my fellow, former workers,” said Haley, “and their families to bear the pain, stress and cost of such a terrible disease — not to mention the loss of their loved ones.”

The Advisory Board granted NUMEC workers the special status, becoming only the fourth such worksite in the country at that time.

Since then, former NUMEC workers have been approved for $60 million in compensation and reimbursement for medical expenses.

The decision to grant NUMEC workers special status was based on Ameno’s and other’s presentation on the lack of company records to conduct accurate dose reconstruction for workers. They also presented evidence demonstrating that some workers may have “accumulated substantial chronic exposures through episodic intakes of radionucleotides, combined with external exposures to gamma, beta, and neutron radiation.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary Ann at 724-226-4691, mthomas@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.

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