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Payout closer for Electro Metallurigical workers; Government creates 'special exposure cohort' to make it easier to seek, win compensation

Former workers at Electro Metallurgical, a long-defunct plant in Niagara Falls, and their survivors will now find it much easier to win federal compensation for the employees' exposure to cancer-causing radiation during the plant's work on creating the nation's first atomic bombs.

The federal government this week approved a "special exposure cohort" for those who worked at the plant from Aug. 13, 1942 through Dec. 31, 1947.

That means workers who got cancer at the plant, and their survivors, will no longer have to individually prove that the employees were exposed to radiation in order to qualify for a $150,000 federal payment.

While many of the people who worked at Electro Metallurgical in the 1940s are now dead, a handful survive -- and a total of more than 100 families could qualify for benefits, said Samual J. Civiletto, a Niagara Falls attorney who is handling claims for several of the families.

Civiletto took up the cause of fighting for the compensation because his father, Charles J. Civiletto, worked at the plant and died at age 55 from colon cancer.

"It was upsetting that they denied the claim" he filed on behalf of his late father, Civiletto said. "I checked the family history, and there was no family history of colon cancer."

But there was a history of uranium processing at Electro Metallurgical, one of several local facilities involved in the Manhattan Project, which created the nation's first atomic bomb.

The metal processing plant built a separate building for its nuclear work, where it turned uranium tetraflouride into uranium metal ingots and billets.

"I really felt it was infuriating that the workers didn't really know what they were involved in," Civiletto said.

After consulting with Antoinette Bonsignore, an attorney who represented workers at Linde Ceramics -- another local plant that did nuclear work -- Civiletto applied for the "special exposure cohort" for the Electro Metallurgical workers.

He argued that records didn't exist that could approximate how much radiation each of the workers at the plant encountered. And last month, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius agreed.

"It is not feasible to estimate with sufficient accuracy" how much radiation each worker at the plant was exposed to, Sebelius said in a document explaining her decision, adding that "there is a reasonable likelihood" that radiation endangered the health of the workers there.

Under the federal law creating benefits for former federal nuclear workers, Congress had 30 days to review and overturn Sebelius' decision.

That 30-day period expired this week, meaning workers and their survivors now stand a better chance of receiving compensation.

Those who already have applied do not have to apply again but will have their cases reviewed automatically, Civiletto said.