After an 11-year battle, the federal government is poised to finally recognize that people who lived near Ground Zero – as well as rescue and recovery workers who sifted through the toxic rubble there – got cancer as a result.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – which is responsible for deciding whether cancer should be among the illnesses covered by the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act – is expected to announce the findings as early as tomorrow.
Michael Barasch and Noah Kushlefsky, two lawyers who represent thousands of first responders and residents, said legislative aides involved in drafting the new regulations and Victim Compensation Fund staffers told them that about 50 cancers would be included.
The new regulations would at last allow cancer victims to be compensated.
“It’s a bittersweet thing,” said John Walcott, an NYPD detective who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2003 after working months at Ground Zero and the Fresh Kills landfill. “It took 11 years to do what should have been done a long time ago.”
The Zadroga Act – which was passed into law two years ago and named after NYPD Detective James Zadroga, who perished at age 34 after working on the World Trade Center pile – originally did not cover cancer because of a lack of scientific evidence linking it to Ground Zero toxins, despite outcries from hundreds of sick responders.
Under one component of the law, about 40,000 responders and residents already get monitoring, and 20,000 receive medical treatment. The second part – the Victim Compensation Fund – is being held up by the cancer issue.
About 400 have died from cancer since 9/11, according to the most recent estimates.
With the inclusion of cancer in the program, there will be more victims seeking compensation – and a reduction in individual awards as officials slice up the $2.77 billion fund.
“They’re going to add cancers, but are they going to add more money to the fund?” said Thomas “T.J.” Gilmartin, a smoker who suffers from lung disease and sleep apnea. “It’s crazy. Every time, we gotta fight. It’s two years since Obama signed that bill and nobody’s got 10 cents.”
For some – those hanging onto their lives by a thread – the payout will ultimately be too little, too late.
“There are other people who are sick and dying. They’re not going to last as long as it takes for them to get paid,” Kushlefsky said. “Congress should turn around and fund this for as long as it’s needed.”
The Victim Compensation Fund’s special master, Sheila Birnbaum, will be permitted to spend only $875 million of the fund’s total in the first five years after the initial payments begin. After those five years pass, people with valid claims will begin to receive their remaining portion of the additional $1.9 billion.
Birnbaum said she doesn’t expect more money to flow into the fund, but thinks NIOSH will make an announcement on the cancers this week.
“They hinted that it would be before Sept. 11,” she said.