A former Bethlehem Steel worker says he has uncovered evidence showing the federal government exposed workers there to more dangerous forms of radiation than previously thought.
Edwin Walker, who helped organize the Bethlehem Steel Action Group to pursue claims for compensation from the government, said documents indicate that recycled uranium was rolled by workers at the plant between 1949 and 1952, during Cold War atomic weapons production.
Recycled uranium differs from natural uranium, which the government acknowledges was rolled at Bethlehem Steel, in that it contains very dangerous byproducts, experts say.
"These highly radioactive substances are not found in natural uranium and present an additional danger to workers and the public health," Walker said.
If recycled uranium was rolled at Bethlehem Steel, that knowledge could have a beneficial impact for the hundreds of Western New Yorkers who have filed claims under a federal program designed to compensate workers, or surviving family members of workers, who got certain cancers while unknowingly working in atomic weapons programs.
"He's come up with some information that needs to be evaluated," said James Ellenberger, a former union health and safety official who worked closely with the government in establishing the compensation program.
More than 3,400 claims have been filed on behalf of workers at 13 Western New York locations involved in those programs, including Bethlehem Steel and Simonds Saw and Steel in Lockport.
As of the first week of November, only 907 of those locally based claims resulted in compensation, which is $150,000 plus certain medical expenses. Successful claimants from the local plants have received a total of $63.2 million.
Another 1,432 claims have received final denial. The remainder are still going through the process, a process that has left many claimants frustrated and angry.
"I want to be optimistic, but they're going to do anything in their power to . . . deny our family [compensation]," said Karen Colvin, who filed a claim under the program for her late father, William T. Stack, a tool-and-die maker for 40 years at Bethlehem Steel.
After originally telling potential claimants all they had to do was show that they or their relative worked at one of the plants during the time period covered and that the worker later got one of the covered, radiation-related cancers, the government changed the rules.
It established a document for each work site detailing, as best as could be known, what atomic work was done and when, and what level of radiation workers may have been exposed to.
Claims were then sent through a process that attempted to determine the likelihood that the workers' exposure caused the subsequent cancer. If the process, called a dose reconstruction, indicated a better than 50 percent likelihood, the worker received the compensation.
If Walker's contention that recycled uranium was rolled at Bethlehem Steel is true, it might force the government to rewrite the document to account for the greater exposure.
The relationship of Bethlehem Steel, Simonds Saw and Steel and the federal government's atomic weapons development program is a key dynamic in Walker's argument that Bethlehem Steel rolled recycled uranium.
Declassified documents show the government sent uranium initially to Simonds Saw and Steel for rough-rolling, then shipped it to Bethlehem Steel for finish rolling.
Walker has documention that shows recycled uranium went to Simonds Saw and Steel for rolling. He contends that since the second step in the uranium rolling always occurred at Bethlehem, the recycled uranium must have been finish-rolled in Lackawanna.
The director of the federal agency performing the dose reconstructions said he has received the new information from Walker.
Larry J. Elliott, of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's Office of Compensation Analysis and Support, said he's still trying to verify it.
"It goes to when were recycled uranium products incorporated into the weapons complex system, and where did it go," he said. "That takes a little digging."
Right now, he said, "We don't have the weight of evidence" supporting Walker's contention.
If Walker's information is verified, Elliott said, and it was determined recycled uranium was rolled at Bethlehem Steel, "We would then change the site profile to account for that. If it added any dose, we would revisit all of the claims."
The possible presence of recycled uranium at Bethlehem Steel is important, but one expert on worker exposure to radioactivity, former University at Buffalo physics professor Marvin Resnikoff, said a bigger factor in worker exposure might be what was left at the plant.
He said Simonds Saw was supposed to have been cleaned up, but it was subsequently determined the cleanup was incomplete and inadequate.
"The dose calculations they do for Mr. Walker are based on a very short period of time," said Resnikoff, now a New York City-based consultant on radioactive waste issues. "If the cleanup went as the Simonds Saw cleanup went, the exposure period might be much longer."