Former Bethlehem Steel nuclear workers who have been waiting for years to see if they are eligible for federal compensation for their health problems will have to wait a little longer.
A federal panel, which has been reviewing the case of the local Bethlehem workers who believe they got cancer and other illnesses from radiation exposure, has tabled a petition that could have speeded up that compensation.
The President's Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health voted to postpone action until a work team has a chance to review data from other former nuclear sites. That data might help determine whether the Bethlehem workers should be eligible for the aid.
"At this point, there's no timeline set" for completion of that research, said Fred Blosser, a spokesman for the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health. "We want to move as fast as we can, recognizing that the petitioners have concerns about this."
The petition, filed by people who worked on Cold War-era projects at the defunct Lackawanna steel plant and their families, asked the panel to recommend to the Department of Health and Human Services that the workers be compensated under a 2000 law aimed at providing benefits to workers who helped create the nation's early nuclear weapons.
Compensation has been delayed largely because there's little data proving the Bethlehem workers were exposed to large amounts of radiation. That being the case, Blosser said, the work group will look at other, similar sites to determine whether radiation exposure levels there can allow the panel to make any presumptions about what happened at Bethlehem.
The panel's decision came as a mixed blessing to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who has led the fight to win compensation for the Bethlehem workers.
"I am encouraged that the board is looking further into this issue, but I also believe that it is past time to right the wrongs at Bethlehem Steel, and I urge the board to act swiftly to recommend approval of the Bethlehem Steel petition," Clinton said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., agreed.
The agency "needs to move forward with all due speed and use the new process it will set forth to quickly and completely compensate the Bethlehem Steel workers who have waited far too long to get the justice they deserve," he said.
Calling the use of nuclear exposure data from other facilities "deeply flawed," Clinton said the lack of data from the Bethlehem plant should not get in the way of giving the Bethlehem workers and their survivors what they deserve.
"I think the law is clear that if the government doesn't have adequate information . . . then workers should be given the benefit of the doubt and their claims should be paid," she said.