Radioactive dust covered plant

By Peter Eisler, USA TODAY


TONAWANDA, N.Y. - By the time Roger Curtiss began working at the Linde Air Products plant, its secret role in the U.S. nuclear weapons program was a fading piece of World War II history.

The radioactive uranium dust that blanketed the plant was not.

Curtiss is one of hundreds who have labored at the Linde site in the decades since the government hired the company to process uranium for atomic bombs. For much of that time, the dust remained.

"It was this fine black dust - it used to come down from the rafters every time there was a thunderstorm," says Curtiss, who retired in 1993. "You could see it on everything. No one ever told us to wear protective gear. You'd blow your nose, and the stuff would come out black."

Curtiss, 71, lost a chunk of his right lung three years ago to a type of cancer that can come from breathing uranium dust. Now he is caught in a debate over the government responsibility for workers from hundreds of companies that had classified, Cold War contracts to process nuclear weapons material. The implications touch thousands.

Curtiss seems a great candidate for federal compensation under a program set up in 2000 to assist people with cancers and other illnesses linked to nuclear weapons production. The program covers workers from federal facilities and 265 contracting sites - chemical plants, auto and aircraft factories, foundries and steel mills. Eligible workers get $150,000 and help with medical bills. But Curtiss was denied compensation under a rule that stands to block many potential claimants: Sick workers aren't eligible if they were hired after the weapons work ended.

Yet many of the private facilities that handled uranium, thorium and other hazardous material for the nuclear weapons program in the 1940s and '50s remained dangerously contaminated for years, even decades, according to a USA TODAY review of declassified federal records at the National Archives. Discoveries of lingering hazards forced a few sites to be restricted, closed or abandoned as late as the 1990s.

Thousands of workers passed through those facilities in the years after weapons work was finished. Some spent decades in buildings that weren't properly cleaned. There's no way to know how many got sick.

Government officials are well aware that the compensation program may not be reaching all the workers with illnesses related to nuclear weapons production.

An unreleased federal study, ordered by Congress, identifies more than 150 former contracting sites that had "high potential" for leftover radiation and toxins. The study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which was supposed to be issued last December, is undergoing a pre-release review by other agencies that helped work on it.

People with ailments that can be tied to contamination at contracting sites "deserve compensation, whether their exposure occurred during the weapons contract or after," says Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who is pushing to expand eligibility.

The Labor Department, which runs the compensation program, has approved 20,000 claims and paid $640 million in compensation. The department has moved to deny 28,500 claims, but it does not track how many involve sick workers who came to contracting sites after weapons operations ended.

Production vs. protection

Linde began refining uranium in 1943 for the government's crash program to build the first atomic bomb. The plant was picked because it had processed uranium to make ceramic glazes. It refined thousands of tons of uranium for the nuclear weapons program through 1950.

Linde was among the first companies hired for nuclear weapons work in the 1940s and '50s. Chemical plants refined radioactive material and toxic compounds. Steel mills and machine shops cut and shaped the material.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which ran the weapons program, knew workers faced risks, but production pressures left little incentive to slow work while protections were put in place.

"Not all contractors are safety-conscious since in every case they are chosen primarily because of (production) capabilities," the AEC's medical director warned in a declassified 1947 memo. Health hazards "have been given inadequate consideration."

AEC studies routinely found sites where radiation levels grossly exceeded even the relatively lax safety standards of the day. Radioactive dust levels at some facilities were more than 100 times those limits.

The contamination persisted long after contracting wound down in the 1950s, when weapons work shifted to federal weapons production facilities. USA TODAY used state and federal records to document more than a dozen cases in which contracting sites had unsafe levels of contamination long after federal work ceased.

Some examples:

* The Linde plant was cleaned up in 1949, as its federal contracts were ending. It was decontaminated again in the mid-1950s because the earlier effort was inadequate. Yet a federal survey in 1976 still found "quite extensive" radiation contamination in two buildings. That posed a "potential radiation safety problem to personnel conducting maintenance or construction," the report said. A federal cleanup, still ongoing, has torn down several buildings and removed tons of contaminated soil.

* The Harshaw Chemical plant in Cleveland was fouled for decades after refining thousands of tons of uranium from 1942 through 1953. The site was cleaned when its contracts ended, but a 1957 federal survey found radiation levels that limited one building's use. More cleanup followed. Yet surveys in 1976 and 1984 still found enough radiation to threaten maintenance or construction workers. Another federal cleanup is ongoing.

* Vulcan Crucible Tool and Steel in Aliquippa, Pa., cut and extruded hundreds of tons of uranium metal in the 1940s and was polluted with radioactive dust levels up to 200 times the safety standards of the day. Some decontamination was done, but a 1978 study still found radiation to exceed legal limits in some areas. During a cleanup in 1988, one building was fenced off because of health risks. Final decontamination was done in 1994.

'It makes you think'

Joe Cinelli was among dozens of workers hired at Linde just after its federal contracts ended. He began in maintenance and did everything from construction to grounds work, sometimes in dumping areas for radioactive waste.

"It makes you think about what your body absorbed," says Cinelli, 69, who spent 32 years at Linde. He has lung cancer and lymphoma, two of the diseases covered by the compensation program. His claim has not been granted.

Dennis Conroy of Praxair, a research and engineering company that took over the Linde site in 1992, says there are no more health risks at the plant.

Cinelli wishes the plant's pollution were addressed earlier.

"We began to get a funny feeling in the early '70s, when the company started monitoring us (for illnesses) and telling us not to eat in the buildings," he says. "No one ever told us there was a problem."

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