Survivors and families of people stricken with cancer after working on government atomic weapons projects here in the late 1940s and early 1950s understandably feel as if they are being treated as second-class citizens. Federal officials insist that isn't true, but failure by the government to release a draft report on radiation exposure at Bethlehem Steel Corp. raises suspicions that will not be quelled by constant reminders of process and procedure.
The federal government finally 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 while working on federal atomic weapons programs. Then came the federal Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act, under which employees at those sites, or their survivors, could receive $150,000 payments if it is determined that those workers developed radiation-related cancers.
One would think that an audit of the criteria used to estimate workers' exposure to radiation at Bethlehem Steel would be made public. But that's not the case.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health funded the audit. Larry Elliott, director of NIOSH's office of compensation analysis and support, said the institute has not released the audit because it is only a draft. NIOSH and the compensation board agreed that until the draft has been reviewed by the board, as a whole, releasing any information would pose unnecessary confusion.
The draft is neither official policy nor a consensus recommendation of the board, at this point. And the board is within its legal rights to delay public review of the draft report until the board meets in California in mid-December.
But this draft also represents lives. The frustration of survivors and their families is apparent. They deserve full and immediate disclosure.
Richard Miller, a watchdog for the Government Accountability Program, said the document belongs to the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health. It does not belong to NIOSH, which he accuses of trying to suppress public debate. The accusation is not without merit. Miller used to serve on federal advisory committees where every document, even in draft form, saw the light of day.
Sens. Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer have requested the document. Rep. Louise Slaughter, an original co-sponsor of the bill that created the program, joined Rep. Jack Quinn in sending a letter requesting the audit.
Withholding the document gives rise to conspiracy theories. It also raises legitimate questions about transparency, which was promised to survivors and their families after years of denial by the federal government. Frank Panasuk, spokesman for Bethlehem Steel Radiation Victims and Survivors, voiced those very concerns to this page.
The House Judiciary Committee staff has joined Clinton and Schumer in demanding the release of the Bethlehem Steel audit report. They have sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control demanding its release in advance of the December meeting. They are also reportedly ramping up oversight of NIOSH's interference with the audit process.
This draft report should be released for discussion -- and survivors and their families should get the governmental openness on this issue that they deserve.