PITTSBURGH, PA Steelworker Stephen Kaurich remembers those mysterious shipments to his mill in the two years after World War II, the strange metal bars he and his crew were told to roll down to a smaller, more usable size.
The shipments arrived hidden under the floorboards of boxcars, and once workers began rolling them through the steel mill's machinery, they noticed the bars did not cool like the materials they were used to shaping.
|"They didn't tell us they were uranium bars."|
"They didn't tell us they were uranium bars," Kaurich said.
Now an 80-year-old colon cancer survivor, Kaurich is convinced his illness was caused by exposure to radiation. He is among tens of thousands of sickened nuclear weapons workers and survivors expected to seek federal compensation for having contributed to the nation's Cold War buildup of atomic weapons.
But six months after workers and their families could begin applying for the $150,000 lump sums, many applicants are still waiting, with older workers wondering if they will live long enough to see a payout.
"Nothing yet," said Kaurich, who filed last year and was not asked for medical records on his 1974 surgery until last month. "Most of the guys are all dead. They should have done something about it a long time ago."
Program director Pete Turcic said the process for approving claims can be long and asked applicants to be patient. Of 18,980 claims filed in the first six months, 1,228 cases have been paid out and 74 denied, he said.
Many of the workers died long before the compensation program began.
|Program director Pete Turcic said the process for approving claims can be long and asked applicants to be patient. Of 18,980 claims filed in the first six months, 1,228 cases have been paid out and 74 denied, he said.|
"I understand people are concerned, but we are committed to processing claims as rapidly as possible," Turcic said.
Two years ago, Congress approved the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program to provide $150,000, plus medical benefits, for living workers who got sick. Survivors of the dead can apply for the lump sum.
The program, administered by the Labor Department, is intended to compensate workers who became ill after being exposed to cancer-causing radiation or silica and beryllium, two metals that can cause lung disease, while working on dangerous weapons materials, often without knowing it.
Officials are anticipating 80,000 claims in the first two years of the program, with the vast majority being cancer patients.
The Energy Department has to verify the person was employed at certain installations when dangerous materials were handled. Then the Department of Health and Human Services has to determine whether his or her illness was caused by the work.
The program covers 318 facilities in 37 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Marshall Islands, with the highest number of sites in New York (38) and Ohio (35). The list includes the University of California at Berkeley, the Great Lakes Carbon Corp. in Chicago, the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in New Jersey and a Bethlehem Steel operation in Lackawanna, N.Y.
Kaurich worked at the Vulcan Crucible Steel Co. in Aliquippa, 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.
Kaurich said many of the workers died long before the compensation program began. He said eight men in his crew of 10 are already gone.
"I'm lucky," Kaurich said.
The workers knew the shipments were odd but gave them little thought. Kaurich said he later learned that the uranium was sent to a nuclear plant in Washington state, where it was used to produce plutonium for bombs.
Dorothy Baron filed an application in October for her stepfather, Nick Arbutina, a steelworker who worked at the Vulcan plant from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. He died of leukemia in 1984.
Baron, 71, said she has run into obstacles because the hospital where Arbutina died no longer has his medical records. Baron said she is mainly concerned for her 89-year-old mother, who lost her first husband to a fire in 1937.
"She got nothing then because Social Security was just coming out," Baron said. "It'd be nice if she could get something now."
|All That Glitters:
Knight-Ridder, Oct 19, 1987
|Unwitting scrapmen find discarded irradiation machine.|