FOCUS: WORKERS AND RADIATION
The veteran of WWIII
Former Marine suffered from secret uranium work at Bethlehem, fought battle
By JOHN F. BONFATTI
News Staff Reporter
Like so many others of his generation, Gene O'Brien went off to fight the last great war and returned to a job at the bustling Bethlehem Steel plant.
As a Marine, O'Brien faced his share of danger.
But nothing, he believes, compared to the danger he unknowingly encountered at the sprawling steel plant on the Lake Erie shore.
The invisible threat was radiation from uranium that steelworkers were rolling into rods during secret government experiments in the early 1950s.
O'Brien wasn't alone. Thousands of men worked in the mills, exposed to the danger.
Of those workers, 2,985 claims for compensation had been filed on behalf of former employees at 13 area plants under the 2000 Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation program, as of early November.
What makes O'Brien different is that he got money from the government for his sufferings.
Not many others - just a few hundred - have seen any cash.
"I came out of the Marine Corps and World War II and never knew I went into World War III," O'Brien said. "I didn't get the protective equipment in World War III that I had in World War II."
O'Brien, 78, believes radiation at the plant damaged the front temporal lobe in his brain and led to the removal of his bladder and prostate.
The U.S. government apparently also believes radiation led to his health problems. In November, it issued him a check for $150,000.
"It took him three years to get this," said O'Brien's wife of 54 years, Jane, glancing at the piles of paperwork that clutter the kitchen table in their Elma home. "Three years of stuff all over the table."
The federal law was designed to compensate workers who were unknowingly exposed to radiation when they worked on secret atomic weapons programs and later contracted certain cancers linked to that exposure.
Successful claimants - like O'Brien - get $150,000 and money toward medical bills.
But nearly half of the claims involving area plants have been denied. O'Brien's is one of just 357 claims that have been paid so far. And he's one of the few successful claimants willing to talk about his experiences with the compensation program.
"It's good news," O'Brien said of his award, "but I'd rather have my health. And I feel sorry for the guys who are left. I don't think they're going to get anywhere."
That's because he feels those still pursuing claims are being victimized by the government bureaucracy administering the program.
Three federal agencies - the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Energy - are involved in the program, which started with a promise by the government that it would lean toward approving claims.
"That has not been the case," said Edwin Walker, leader of a group of former Bethlehem Steel workers who are critical of the program's administration. "They fight. They argue. They just don't respond."
In the case of Bethlehem Steel claimants, Walker, O'Brien and others blame a computer model designed to determine the likelihood that a claimant's cancer was caused by radiation exposure.
Earlier this week, a government audit pointed to significant flaws in the model, prompting local congressional leaders to call for it to be revised.
But a government official whose agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, is responsible for developing the model has defended it and the program's administration.
"I think there are some very positive things to say about Bethlehem Steel and the claims in New York," said Larry Elliott, director of NIOSH's Office of Compensation Analysis and Support. "New York is much farther ahead than the other states."
The Bethlehem Steel model, Elliott said, is "a scientifically sound . . . document. It includes very favorable claimant assumptions."
The model was needed because there is scant hard evidence detailing how much radiation workers were exposed to in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the government conducted experiments at Bethlehem. The experiments involved rolling uranium for a federal reactor in Ohio.
O'Brien was an electrician at Bethlehem Steel. He didn't work much at the bar mill where the rollings took place, but, as a grievance chairman for the steelworkers union, he said he frequently visited the area to talk with workers about seniority issues they were having.
It was around this time, O'Brien said, that he inexplicably started having blackouts. Some occurred while he was driving his car, leading to at least three accidents.
"It was only after those soldiers came back from the first Gulf War with health problems caused by irradiated bombs that I made the connection," he said. "Exactly the same thing happened to me. I was hit with uranium dust."
First cancer in 1977
Ultimately, the blackouts led to his leaving Bethlehem Steel on disability in 1975.
The cancers followed.
In 1977, doctors diagnosed cancer in his bladder. That disappeared following chemotherapy, but in 1982, doctors found cancer in his prostate and, as a precaution, decided to remove both. In 1999, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer.
With two major surgeries, O'Brien thought the chances of a successful claim were good. He was stunned when his claim was initially rejected.
"When I first got rejected, I was hot," he said. "If I didn't get it, who the hell is going to get it?"
That's a question Walker said he has heard over and over.
"When we have our meetings, and there's usually 200 people or so, you hear them all (complain), not just one or two or ten. It's all the way down the line, the frustration," he said.
Walker is a one-time Bethlehem bricklayer who subsequently got bladder cancer. His claim has been rejected, and his appeal of that rejection has been denied.
O'Brien said the rejection of his claim prompted him to refile, this time adding what he thought were relatively minor skin cancers he'd had in the past.
As it turned out, "with the skin cancer alone, I would have had enough" to receive the compensation.
"I almost kicked the bucket with all this other stuff," Walker said of the bladder, prostrate and rectal cancers. Yet it was the inclusion of the skin cancers that resulted in his award.
"I don't get it," said O'Brien, echoing a sentiment shared by many frustrated claimants.
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