Sons fighting for father's death benefit want 'justice for everybody' - The Buffalo News

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Sons fighting for father's death benefit want 'justice for everybody'

Arnold Young had been dead for 26 years from prostate cancer when his family learned his work might have killed him.

He had worked for three Niagara Falls companies that handled radioactive metals under government contracts during and after World War II.

A government program pays compensation to the survivors of former nuclear workers who died of cancer. If Young had died from any of 22 kinds of cancer on a federal government list, the $150,000 in compensation to his survivors would have been virtually automatic.

But Young, it turned out, didn't have the right kind of cancer.

Prostate cancer and skin cancer are not on the automatic payout list because they are so common. So the government turned to a formula it established to gauge the chance that radiation exposure caused his cancer.

If the chance was 50 percent or higher, the federal government would pay the compensation.

In Arnold Young's case, the government found a 49.18 percent chance that radiation caused his prostate cancer.

So in 2011, the U.S. Labor Department rejected his widow's claim.

The sons of the late Arnold and Dorothy Young, shown in this family photo, are preparing to sue the federal government over its denial of death benefits to Arnold Young's survivors. Arnold Young died 26 years ago of prostate cancer after working at three Niagara Falls companies that handled radioactive metals under government contracts during and after World War II. The case could potentially impact the family of tens of thousands of workers like Young who were exposed to radiation at work during World War II. (Photo courtesy of family)

But the family has objected to the ruling because the government considers only post-war radiation exposure when calculating the chance.

As a result, none of the work Young did around uranium at the old Electro Metallurgical Co. plant during World War II counted when the government calculated the chance radiation caused his cancer.

Dorothy Young, his widow, has since died. But now her sons, Kevin and Shannon Young, are preparing to sue the federal government in hopes of changing the rules and winning compensation, not only for themselves but for tens of thousands of other workers who were exposed to radiation at work during World War II.

The sons "thought we should pursue it, not just to pursue it, but for everybody else that's in the same situation," Kevin Young said. "It's trying to get justice for everybody."

'Just a working guy'

Electro Met, as Arnold Young's employer often was called, was located on 56th Street near Niagara Falls Boulevard in Niagara Falls.

The work he did there from 1941 to 1945 was part of the Manhattan Project effort to develop an atomic bomb.

"He was just a working guy," Kevin Young, 74, said.

Among other work, the plant processed uranium tetrafluoride received from Union Carbide's Linde Air Products Division. Workers reacted that radioactive material with magnesium in induction furnaces to produce uranium metal that was cast into ingots and shipped out for rolling at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna.

The rolls were shipped to the government's nuclear reactors.

"He was a welder, a fabricator," Kevin Young said. "I don't know if he was in the maintenance department or what, but he worked around equipment that was doing the production, the furnaces, whatever they had there at Electro Met. He was in that environment every day, working on the equipment that processed the radioactive materials."

After the war, the Atomic Energy Commission awarded contracts for more work on radioactive materials to 382 companies around the nation, including many in Western New York.

After 1945, Arnold Young worked for a time at Carborundum Co. in Niagara Falls, and from 1956 to 1971 he worked at the Linde plant in the Town of Tonawanda. He went to work at Linde after selling a 100-acre farm he owned in Orleans County while also working at the old Massey-Harris farm equipment plant in Batavia.

Linde processed uranium for the government from 1942 to 1949.

Decades later, the industrial workers began dying of cancer, which often could be attributed to working on radioactive materials without proper protection.

Arnold Young's sons decided to carry on the fight with the government after their mother died in 2014 at age 96.

The 'right' cancers

Buffalo attorney R. Hugh Stephens, who represents the Youngs, called their case "perfect in terms of an attorney making an argument" because of the 49.18 percent probability the government already has found that their father's prostate cancer was connected to radiation.

"A feather on the scale" could make his sons eligible to split $150,000, Stephens said.

Estimating exposure to radiation applies to post-war years, when record-keeping and scientific knowledge of the threats posed by radiation were better.

With the government not crediting workers for possible exposure during World War II, "what you're doing now is saying the person wasn't exposed to radiation. One thing we know for sure is the person was exposed to radiation," Stephens said.

"They understood that radiation can kill you immediately or make you sick and put you in the hospital immediately," he said. "What they didn't understand is the big problem, or the more significant problem, is the cancer you're going to get in 20 or 30 years. In '42 to '45, they had no idea."

Attorney Hugh Stephens represents two brothers suing the government over a rejected compensation claim. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

In reviewing his family's compensation claim, the government gave Young credit for working in a plant that had residual radioactivity and eventually had to be decontaminated, even though Linde wasn't working with radioactive materials at the time Young was employed there.

Most cancer-stricken former workers from Electro Met, Bethlehem Steel and other plants, or their survivors, already have received credit for their radiation exposure. For them, and for those at dozens of other plants, the Labor Department created a "special exposure cohort," applying to years when the radiation dosage can't be adequately reconstructed because of poor or non-existent records.

"They don't make any attempt to estimate the dose. They just pay the claim," Stephens said.

But for those with prostate cancer or skin cancer, it's a different story.

"People with prostate cancer at Bethlehem Steel are running into the same problems the Young claim is," Stephens said.

There are no records of the amount of radiation Arnold Young might have been exposed to during the war, but there are figures generated from tests at that plant in later years. And there are shipping records that show exactly how much material was shipped to Electro Met, along with scientific measurements of the toxicity.

In 2012, the Labor Department created a special exposure cohort for Electro Met based on a presumption of radiation exposure and applied it to those with the 22 listed cancers.

Stephens contends the government should simply project those radiation numbers to the first half of the 1940s and add an estimated dosage for the wartime period to the probability already estimated for Arnold Young.

"Perform a proper and complete dose reconstruction," Stephens said. "Right now, they're saying, 'We can't.' In other words, they're saying, 'Because we can't do one that's sufficiently accurate to deny claims, we're not going to do one at all.' And our position is, 'You can do one. It might not be terribly accurate, but you need to do one. You did one in 2012. You made an estimate.' "

Carying on fight

Some 237 former Electro Met workers or their survivors have received compensation payments totaling more than $34 million for having contracted one of the 22 listed cancers.

The government also has paid 367 claims for Linde workers, totaling more than $54 million. And 1,579 Bethlehem Steel workers have been paid a total of more than $241 million.

Stephens contends the 2000 law that established the compensation payments does not give the Labor Department the authority to assign a zero value to radiation in any time period. The law tells the department to make a "sufficiently accurate estimate," he said.

Stephens said it's obvious that zero is not an accurate estimate.

By giving the workers credit for their work during wartime, many more $150,000 payments would have to be made by the program. Already, 115,000 people have been paid a total of about $14 billion in death benefits for cancer caused by radiation.

"This process started with my mother," Kevin Young said. "At that time they disallowed it, she was frustrated, so I said, 'Can I continue to pursue for you?' And she gave me the authority to do it. Since then she's passed away, so we're just carrying it on."

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