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Nuclear workers nearing payment

Mary Ann Thomas
| Monday, Dec. 10, 2007

Although Gloria DeBiasio survived thyroid cancer several years ago, she visits her doctor every three months for testing. She will do so for the rest of her life.

"I was one of the fortunate ones," the Gilpin resident said. "They did get the cancer, but there's always the concern that it will show up somewhere else."

DeBiasio, a former administrative assistant at the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) facilities in Apollo and Parks for 20 years, stands to collect a $150,000 lump-sum, tax-free payment and coverage of medical expenses from the federal government for work-related illnesses. Although DeBiasio has been waiting for final word on acceptance since she filed her claim in 2002, she will get her answer soon enough.

The secretary of Health and Human Services recently approved special consideration of NUMEC workers as a "special exposure cohort class" -- the government's term for a group of employees who sustained prolonged exposure to nuclear radiation. Final Congressional approval is expected by Dec. 29. 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. Former employees with beryllium disease will continue to file through the traditional program.

NUMEC workers are eligible for federal benefits through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) of 2000. The act awards money and medical benefits to former workers of atomic weapons employers and their survivors. NUMEC held numerous government contracts to produce nuclear fuel for submarines, commercial power plants and other applications.

Given the pending Congressional approval, compensation program officials are advising former NUMEC workers to contact the EEOICPA program offices to check on the status of their claims.

"We've had people call and say that they filed, but they didn't. They might have signed a petition," said David SanLorenzo, manager of the EEOICPA resource center outside of Buffalo, N.Y.

Following Congressional approval, EEOICPA officials will review all previous and current claims -- even those previously denied.

Local activists and SanLorenzo's office have fielded hundreds of inquiries from former Alle-Kiski nuclear workers and their survivors in the past three months, as news broke about the special status for NUMEC employees. According to SanLorenzo, his office signed up more than 100 former workers or their survivors following informational seminars in New Kensington in October.

The recent nod from Human and Health Services caps an aggressive grass-roots effort to include NUMEC workers in a special class.

After many workers were denied compensation or were subjected to lengthy waits because of problems developing radiation dose estimates for individuals, former NUMEC office worker Rich Parler, 62, of Coraopolis, petitioned for special cohort status.

After the EEOICPA program initially turned down his petition, he teamed up with Leechburg environmental activist Patty Ameno. She has been instrumental in bringing a lawsuit to federal court alleging that nuclear contamination from NUMEC and its successors caused illness and/or property damage in Apollo and surrounding communities. Former NUMEC engineer, Tom Haley, 72, of Allegheny Township and others former employees came forward with affidavits verifying the hazardous work conditions and lack of monitoring.

Ameno, Parler and Haley took their cause on the road and testified before a federal health advisory board near Chicago in October. Shortly after their testimony, that board voted unanimously for special cohort status for NUMEC employees.

"It's gratifying that the little guys can take on and beat the Goliath of the government and get the truth out," Ameno said. "And in this area -- where incomes are severely limited -- the compensation and medical coverage will take a little bit of burden off some families." Additional Information:

The report

According to a Nov. 29 report from Michael Leavitt, secretary of Health and Human Services, special exposure cohort status should be awarded to all NUMEC employees in Apollo due to:

• Reasonable likelihood that radiation doses may have endangered the heath of NUMEC employees.

• Lack of internal monitoring data prior to 1960 and lack of suitable data from 1976 to1983.

• Inadequate information of NUMEC's thorium and plutonium operations and the radium-beryllium and polonium-beryllium neutron source fabrication operations.

• Lack of documentation of potential elevated ambient radiation levels from stack releases at the Apollo plant.

• Questionable health-monitoring data from a NUMEC contractor, Controls for Environmental Pollution.

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