updated 1/3/2008 12:29:09 PM ET 2008-01-03T17:29:09

After a yearslong fight, tens of thousands of workers at a former nuclear fuel processing plant in Armstrong County are now eligible for government aid for their illnesses.

To qualify for the $150,000 in compensation, the workers must have worked at the plant in Apollo for at least 250 days between 1957 and 1983 and have one of 22 different cancers.

Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp., or NUMEC, began work in and around the tiny town of Apollo, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh, in 1957. The plant, which changed ownership over the years, produced fuel for nuclear submarines and other purposes.

Decades later, activists and former workers began questioning whether the plant had contributed to cancers among employees and townspeople. They petitioned the government for reparations. Lawsuits — some still pending — also followed.

On Saturday, the Apollo workers became part of a special compensation class for sick nuclear workers. Congress had until then to act on a recommendation made Nov. 29 by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt that the workers receive a special status from Congress that would entitle them to $150,000 each under a government program that compensates former nuclear workers. Leavitt made the decision following the recommendation of two boards.

Because Congress didn't act, Leavitt's recommendation became final.

Sick workers who do not have one of the 22 cancers may be eligible for compensation, but must meet different criteria.

More than 400 claims have already been filed by former workers or their beneficiaries, according to the Web site for the Department of Labor, which administers payments. Shelby Hallmark, director of the office of Workers' Compensation Programs, said the agency plans to have a town hall meeting in the area in February to answer questions.

It is under review whether workers at a sister nuclear fuel processing plant in Parks Township will also be eligible for compensation under the program.

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said in a statement on Wednesday that he was pleased with the decision because it removes a "significant hurdle" for the workers to receive compensation.

Patricia Ameno, who grew up in Apollo and has advocated on behalf of the workers and townspeople, also praised the decision. But Ameno said the government hasn't gone as far as it should to compensate the former workers struggling with health problems and to pay bills.

"I feel the government owes these workers who were essentially civilian veterans of a Cold War era who helped our country produce a product that they needed," Ameno said.

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