WILLOWBROOK — Margaret Dennison was stonewalled before she even got started. But others with the same concerns weren’t.
Dennison, of Plainfield, was upset officials would not let her read a statement at a public information session set up Wednesday night to offer claim forms for those who may be eligible for federal compensation because they, or a family member, became ill from working with hazardous materials for the government before and during the Cold War.
Dennison and many others of the nearly 300 who attended the first session Wednesday night were upset that the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act excludes many surviving children of the deceased victims.
Congress last year approved the compensation package, which would provide $150,000 to each affected worker, as well as free medical services for the workers’ government work-related illness.
Surviving spouses are eligible for the federal compensation if they were married to the eligible worker when he or she died. Surviving children are eligible if they were younger than 18 or full-time students younger than 23 when their parent died, or they were 18 or older but incapable of self-support when their parent died.
‘Not an inheritance program’
Dennison and others in the Willowbrook Holiday Inn conference room said they didn’t know their fathers were bringing hazardous materials into their homes. In Dennison’s case, her late father, Kenny LeGare, worked in Building 55 at Blockson Chemical, now Olin, south of Joliet.
In that building, workers extracted uranium from phosphorous that was then shipped to the federal government for nuclear weapons manufacturing and testing. The program at Blockson/Olin ran from 1952 to 1962, but Herald News clips show many were unaware of the uranium extraction since the government announced it was contracting with Blockson, which developed tri-sodium phosphate, for cleaning supplies.
Applause rang out every time the issue was brought up by others, but the answer was the same. The way the act is written now, most surviving children are not eligible.
“This is not an inheritance program,” said Hal Glassman, a U.S. Department of Labor spokesman said before the meeting. “This is a workers’ compensation program.”
Several U.S. senators also upset about the issue of compensation for surviving children are looking into amending the act. But as of now, Glassman and fellow DOE representative Frank James said the best thing for those people to do is petition their congressmen and send comments to: Shelby Hallmark, acting director of the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, Room S3524, U.S. Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20210. The deadline for such comments is Aug. 23.
Advice for claims
Otherwise, many in the audience seemed to be happy with what they heard. The compensation forms, passed out at the meeting, are easy to fill out, Glassman said. “All you need is a pen.”
Medical records are helpful, Glassman and James said, but more important are the victims’ Social Security numbers, the type of illness they have and when it was diagnosed.
Diseases covered include cancers caused by radiation, chronic beryllium disease and chronic silicosis. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will establish guidelines for estimating radiation doses and the likelihood that they caused a worker’s cancer.
Members of the audience also represented two other area locales that were affected. From 1943 to 1946, some workers at the former William E. Pratt Co., at Cass and Henderson streets in Joliet, ground uranium rods for nuclear fuel for the government.
The compensation program also covers the 2,300 former workers at the University of Chicago/Argonne National Laboratories who could have been exposed to beryllium dust while producing casings for atomic weapons produced elsewhere in the late 1930s and 1940s.
The victims had to be working at the specific plants during the government contracts, James said. Those who believe they may have been exposed to remnants of contamination after the contracts are not covered at this point, but Department of Labor officials suggested they, too, forward their comments in writing by the Aug. 23 deadline.
One woman in the audience wondered whether officials knew that the government had a pilot program in 1950-51 to determine if uranium could be extracted from phosphorous. Brian Quirke of the Energy Department said he would look into that.
People can begin filing claims immediately, James said, but they will not be processed until the law takes effect July 31. He said they already have 400 or 500 claims filed from more than 30 similar meetings held in other states, and sacks full of mail are arriving every day.
Those found not to be covered by the federal program will be referred to state workers’ compensation programs, which the U.S. Department of Energy will assist with. Those who want to find out more about that program can call (877) 447-9756.
If workers or their eligible family members aren’t sure whether to file for the federal program, James said, “I urge you to file a claim. Your investment: 34 cents.”
And do it quickly, he added. While there is no deadline for the program, eligible parties must be living to receive the benefit. So if a widow files for the claim and dies before she can receive the money, officials said, the claim is then ineligible.
People who file claims should send in originals of the claim forms, James said, but copies of medical records. They should make copies of the claim forms, he added, however, so they can keep track in case there is a problem.
Another meeting will be held at 7 p.m. today at the Willowbrook Holiday Inn, off of Illinois 83 (Kingery Highway) north of Interstate 55. Claim packages will be available there.
For those who aren’t able to attend the meeting, claim kits and more information are available by calling (866) 888-3322 or requesting one on the official Department of Labor Web site: [WEB SITE].
A limited number of claim kits also will be available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays beginning Monday at the front office of The Herald News, 300 Caterpillar Drive, Joliet.
Completed claim forms can be mailed to the U.S. Department of Labor, Division of Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation, P.O. Box 77918, Washington, D.C. 20013-7918.
* Nick Reiher, assistant city editor, can be reached at (815) 729-6050 or via e-mail at email@example.com.