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Bethlehem employees still waiting for justice

Fresh out of high school my husband, Ed Walker, went to work at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna. He took an apprenticeship as a bricklayer. At that time, he had no idea how dangerous the work was. Workers had to put the bricks on a long-handled paddle and reach into the furnaces to patch the holes with no protection other than the gloves and shoes they themselves had bought.

In 2000, the government acknowledged that it had a secret project with the Federal Atomic Energy Commission to roll uranium once a month for four years, starting in 1949. The workers had no idea that they were involved with a deadly material that would cause many of them to contract many types of cancer. Even as they were dying, the government did not inform them.

One evening in 2001, Ed and I were watching the news and we heard that the government was going to compensate the workers who had worked at Bethlehem Steel from 1949 through 1952 and had contracted cancer.

Ed had worked there from 1951 through 1954, and he had bladder cancer, so we went to fill out the forms. We were told that there would be a compensation of $150,000 in three months.

But Ed's claim was denied; he was told he didn't qualify. Soon the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) came up with a dose reconstruction program to determine whether claimants qualified. It said a worker had to have at least 50 percent causation. Ed was told he had only 3.29 percent. The 2000 bill that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton said nothing about a dose reconstruction.

Ed did some research and found many discrepancies and flaws in the program. He contacted Jay Bonfatti, a reporter from The Buffalo News, and persuaded Jay to interview him. When Jay arrived, I took him into the living room just as Ed was getting up from his recliner. Jay said, "Hey, I have a chair just like that. But yours is in much better condition."

Ed replied, "Well, Jay, you can have it when I'm through with it." That conversation was the start of a great relationship between the two of them. Jay wrote most of Ed's articles.

Ed and I attended advisory boards and general meetings held by NIOSH and were able to convince several congressmen that the NIOSH program was flawed.

NIOSH continued to discredit, saying that depleted uranium could have been present in the Department of Energy complex in the last six months of 1952, but that it had no direct evidence that this was actually the case at Bethlehem Steel. Therefore, we were to get "the benefit of the doubt" and should qualify for the Special Exposure Cohort. Officials said it would make us "claimant favorable." Unfortunately, this didn't change any compensation decision made by the Department of Labor.

On Aug. 28, 2008, Jay passed away from a heart attack seven months after Ed died. I believe that they are sitting side by side in their recliners with their feet up and Jay is saying: "Look, Ed, see what Joyce is doing down there. She's going to finish what you started and she has a lot of people helping her."

I will never be able to fill Ed's shoes, but I will continue to work for the continuance and support of Senate Bill S-2589 and Care Act HR-4052. We will not quit, we will not go away and we will not rest until we get justice for our workers and their families.

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