By Don McIntosh, Associate Editor
ALBANY, Ore. — Every day, Garry Steffy scans obituaries looking for his former co-workers.
Steffy, 64, retired in 2010 after 39 years at an Albany metals plant owned by ATI Specialty Alloys and Components. His job was to operate an electron beam furnace, melting metals like zirconium and niobium in a vacuum chamber.
The plant was known as Teledyne Wah Chang when Steffy began in 1971. That was the year Wah Chang got a Union Carbide subcontract to melt uranium-enriched metals for the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons program. The work lasted until 1972, but the residual radiation stuck around at the plant for the next 40 years.
Workers at the plant then and now are members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 6163. Steffy was one of the union members on the plant safety committee. Yet it wasn’t until after his retirement that he learned that he and his co-workers had been exposed to radioactive materials in 1971 and 1972. That revelation came in a June 2011 article in the Albany Democrat-Herald about a federal government program paying compensation to radiation-exposed workers who later developed cancer.
Cancer was prevalent among Steffy’s co-workers, so he decided to make it his mission to spread the word about the program.
“Somebody fought for my rights,” Steffy told the Labor Press. “Now it’s my turn.”
The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program was created by Congress in 2000 to help those made sick by radiation, beryllium, or silica as a result of their work on federal nuclear energy and weapons programs. It pays medical bills plus $150,000 to workers who are diagnosed with one of 22 cancers caused by radiation—or to their surviving family members. Exposure to radioactive material can cause non-Hodgkins lymphoma, multiple myeloma, leukemia, and cancers of the stomach, thyroid, pancreas, colon, liver and 10 other bodily organs.
Wah Chang was added to the list of facilities in 2011.
By then, Steffy was active in a newly formed chapter of the USW retiree group, the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR). He worked with the Hanford Resource Center to get educated about the benefit program. Steffy got the USW to pay for a mailing to retirees, and put up cards in the credit union. He began reading obituaries, looking for any mention of the deceased having worked at Wah Chang, in order to make sure widows and children were aware of the benefit.
Steffy said many retirees still don’t know about the program.
“People will retire to Montana, and spend their life savings on medical treatment, unaware of the program,” Steffy said. “I think it’s important they know about it.”
The program’s benefits are automatic for those who worked at Wah Chang in 1971 and 1972 and are diagnosed with cancer. For those who went to work there after that, the U.S. Department of Labor uses a dose reconstruction formula to estimate whether a cancer is more than 50 percent likely to have been caused by residual radiation.
In the four years Wah Chang has been on the program’s list, more than 200 former workers or their survivors have been approved for benefits, and the government has paid out $29.8 million in compensation and $1.8 million in medical bills.
Steffy learned that members of Local 6163’s nearby sister local—USW Local 7150 at Albany Research Center—are also eligible. There, the issue is not radiation but beryllium contamination. Inhalation of beryllium dust or fumes can cause berylliosis, an incurable chronic fatal lung disease. So far, five workers at the Albany Research Center (formerly known as the U.S. Bureau of Mines) have been approved for benefits.
Steffy expects to meet with ATI president Tucker Redford May 4 to ask for company support for a mailing to all former workers, especially those who were employed at Wah Chang when it handled uranium.
The Linn-Benton-Lincoln Central Labor Council honored Steffy for his work at an April 15 meeting.