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Some of those monitoring a federal program attempting to compensate people who got cancer after working on government atomic weapons projects here in the late 1940s and early 1950s are angry that an audit of part of the program has not been released to the public.

The audit of the criteria used to estimate workers' exposure to radiation at Bethlehem Steel Corp. has been completed.

However, those waiting to see it say that it is being withheld by the federal agency that is being audited, and they fear its conclusions are being manipulated to the detriment of those seeking compensation.

"I think it's improper and unlawful, and Congress needs to clarify that," said Richard Miller, who helped push for the compensation program as a watchdog for the Government Accountability Program.

New York's two U.S. senators are already involved. Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton co-signed a letter to the chairman of the advisory board that will review the independent audit, asking for a copy of it.

"I think it's outrageous that they are keeping this secret, whatever it says," Schumer said. "Enough of the delay, enough of the secrecy."

Clinton said she was "very disturbed that they are not cooperating with us." It is important, she said, that "whatever the third-party assessment was will not in any way be undermined or disregarded."

Though the audit was conducted by an independent company, it was funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which developed the site profile.

Larry Elliott, director of the institute's Office of Compensation Analysis and Support, said the audit has not been released because it is only a draft. He said federal regulations prohibit board members from commenting publicly on a draft report.

"The (advisory) board will have to take that draft report and will have a deliberative discussion in a public forum," he said, noting that this will happen Dec. 13-15, when the board convenes in California. "Whatever consensus the board arrives at will be the final determination."

After denying it for decades, the federal government acknowledged in the 1990s that thousands of workers at more than 300 sites across the country, including 13 in Western New York, were exposed to radiation without their knowledge as they worked on federal atomic weapons programs.

The disclosure prompted the federal Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act, under which employees at those sites, or their survivors, could receive $150,000 payments each if it is determined that those employees developed radiation-related cancers.

The audit provoking the controversy concerns the site profile developed for Bethlehem Steel, where the government secretly milled uranium for federal atomic energy projects on several weekends from at least 1949 to 1952.

Claimants who pressed for the audit believe the profile underestimated workers' exposures to radiation at the Lackawanna plant.

At a local hearing in July, retirees told auditors that they were unprotected as they worked at close quarters with the metal and that they frequently ate, drank and inhaled uranium dust.

"I feel some of the information we've pushed on them is very favorable to us, and that's why they're procrastinating," said Edwin Walker, a former bricklayer at the plant who helped organize the Bethlehem Steel Claimants Action Group.

If the audit is critical of the site profile, claimants believe, it would, at the least, force the development of a new profile and the re-evaluation of claims that have been denied.

"It's going to require that the original exposure matrix be revised," said Frank Panasuk, spokesman for Bethlehem Steel Radiation Victims and Survivors.

The chairman of the advisory board, Paul L. Ziemer, also said the audit has not been released to the public because it is a draft under review by board members.

"Until the board holds a public meeting to discuss the report and develop a consensus recommendation to NIOSH and the secretary of Health and Human Services, there is no official board audit report," Ziemer wrote in response to an e-mail inquiry.

Miller questioned the institute's involvement with an audit looking into the agency's own performance: "We're concerned that NIOSH is operating behind closed doors with this contractor when NIOSH is the entity being audited."

Elliott acknowledged that the arrangement "does present a difficult position for us here at NIOSH" but insisted that the agency would not influence the board's decisions.


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