ATTLEBORO - More than 100 former Metals & Controls and Texas Instruments workers and family members attended a forum Friday night to continue to deal with a legacy from the Cold War.
The session, held at Bristol Community College on the site of the former Metals & Controls plant, was intended to inform those who gathered about federal compensation programs available for workers and families of workers who may have contracted cancer from working with radioactive materials.
Thousands worked at the industrial complex, which manufactured nuclear fuel for the Navy and other customers, from 1952 to 1967, and hundreds have been diagnosed with cancer.
While only a small part of the plant was used for nuclear manufacturing, the Attleboro site has been classified by the federal government as a former "atomic weapons employer." Fuel manufactured at the site was used in nuclear submarines and government research reactors.
U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Newton, and the U.S. Labor Department spearheaded the forum, and there was also a representative of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
Lance Lanier from the Cleveland office of the Department of Labor detailed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.
A program for contractors and subcontractors of the Department of Energy that pays up to $150,000 to victims of 22 cancers was created in 2000.
Larry Darcey, a former TI manager who lives in Rehoboth and who helped spark awareness of the cancer issue, said he runs across many ex-workers with multiple cancers.
Mathew Savastano, 82, of Attleboro, said he worked for the company from 1956 to 1966, beginning in his mid-20s, and began suffering from asthma at age 40. He said he has had blood clots in his lungs and several bouts of pneumonia and been "in and out of the hospital."
"I worked on nuclear reactors, did the wiring," Savastano said, adding he was in contact with radioactive enriched uranium and once broke out in a rash that led him to being written up in a medical journal. "I got all of these residual medical problems. It doesn't seem fair they only cover" cancer.
Another program that provides money for any condition linked to exposure to toxic substances went into effect in 2004, Lanier said.
While nuclear work at TI stopped in 1967, residual radiation is believed to have remained until 1997, when the site was cleaned of contamination, officials said. They said there was no monitoring of radiation levels during the nuclear years but there was afterward.
Lanier acknowledged many workers likely became sick from working with toxic metals and chemicals as well.
Texas Instruments sold its Attleboro-based business in 2005, and Darcey said he would like to see coverage extend up to that time.
"We will investigate to see what we can do to broaden some of these categories" for coverage, Kennedy said.
Kenneth Collins, 75, of Swansea, said he worked at the plant in the early 1960s and his father William worked from 1954 to 67, dying of mouth and nose cancer in 1988. "Why did the government wait so long?" Collins asked, highlighting the lack of medical records.
One woman said her father is suffering from bone cancer and wondered if the application would go through before he died. "If it is terminal, we try to speed up the claims," Lanier said.
William Bourque, 82, of Taunton, worked at the plant from 1953 to 1989, and was in contact with nuclear materials for eight years from the mid-50s to mid-60s. He said he once had a piece of uranium stuck in him for months. "I did every job in a highly contaminated area," Bourque said, adding he was "proud" to do the work for the U.S.
The Sun Chronicle documented in a series of reports that more than 300 former workers suffering from cancer received about $30 million in payments and medical benefits under the Labor Department compensation program.
However, the newspaper found little was done to reach out to ex-employees. Kennedy raised the issue at a congressional hearing and received a pledge by Texas Instruments to contact former workers, and the company sent out more than 2,000 letters about the compensation program.
Although a representative from TI was not available for Friday's forum, Lanier said his department has been getting good cooperation from the company. "That is very rare," he said, adding they have employment records.
"We have gotten quite a few claims the last few months," Lanier said.
For more information, workers and families are advised to visit the Department of Labor online, and/or call 1-800-941-3943 or Kennedy's Attleboro office representative Lisa Nelson at 508-431-1110