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102515-nws-uraniumWORKERS006

Heavy machinery is driven at the site of one of the uranium mines outside of Edgemont in 1955. 

People who worked at a uranium ore-buying station in the 1950s in Edgemont may have been exposed to materials that made them sick, and the government wants them and their survivors to know they could be eligible for compensation.

An office of the federal government recently sent the Journal a notice intended for people who worked at the ore-buying station from 1952 to 1956, and for survivors of those workers. The station was also known as the American Smelting and Refining Co., and Lucius Pitkin Inc.

The notice said a federal program provides compensation and medical benefits for contractor and subcontractor employees of the station who, “as a result of this employment, sustained illnesses arising from their exposure to toxic substances, including exposure to radiation.”

The program is called Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation. It was created in 2000 by Congress for employees of the U.S. Department of Energy, and its contractors and subcontractors, who suffered illnesses arising from their work in nuclear weapons production and testing programs.

Since its establishment, the program has paid a total of $16.67 billion for illnesses suffered by 124,290 workers nationwide, according to statistics published last week. In South Dakota, $10.37 million has been paid for illnesses suffered by 120 workers.

The program’s ombudsman’s office believes there may be more potential claimants in South Dakota who are not aware of the program, including people who worked at the Edgemont station and surviving family members.

There are two main parts of the program: one that pays lump-sum payments of $150,000, plus medical expenses, and another that provides payments up to a cap of $250,000 for wage losses, impairment benefits and medical expenses. There are numerous qualifications that applicants must meet, and not everyone who worked at a covered facility is determined to be eligible for compensation.

The 1950s ore-buying station in Edgemont is a covered facility because the station was a place where early uranium miners sold ore to the federal government for use in the nation’s Cold War buildup of nuclear weapons.

Uranium is a basic ingredient for nuclear bombs and nuclear power. Its atoms can be split by neutrons to create the chain reaction of fission that is necessary to produce the enormous amounts of energy in a nuclear detonation or a nuclear reactor.

Uranium occurs naturally in rocks, and human skin blocks uranium’s alpha-particle radiation. But inhaling large concentrations of uranium — in the form of mining dust, for example — can cause cancer. So can chronically high levels of exposure to the uranium decay product known as radium, as can exposure to radium’s decay product, radon gas.

In addition to the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, a similar federal program, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, makes payments to people who contracted cancers and other diseases from exposure to radiation during above-ground nuclear weapons tests or during employment in uranium mines.

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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