Did exposure to toxic dust at Ground Zero cause Utica's longtime fire chief to contract a form of leukemia?

It appears to be the main point of contention in a dispute between Chief Russell Brooks and the city of Utica - although, the Chief believes there's more to it than that.

Brooks, who was effectively bumped into early retirement with pay, has filed two claims related to a diagnosis of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia - now in remission - which he says has been certified as an illness directly related to exposure on 9/11 and the following day. That first claim, a 207-a (which amounts to worker's comp for New York firefighters), was filed in January of this year, and wasn't seeking anything, according to Brooks, just an acknowledgement of his experience on September 11, 2001 and the fact that his exposure resulted in CLL. Brooks was not seeking money, more medical coverage or any other gain, he says.

But the city denied that claim following examinations from independent doctors who found Brooks to be in poor health, not related to CLL, but due to 'chronic unmanaged diabetes and serious coronary artery disease which render him unable to perform all the duties' of fire chief', according to court documents.

Additionally, toxicologist Dr. Michael Holland concluded that CLL is a common cancer in the US with no known cause, that Brooks' 'brief' exposure on 9/11 and 9/12 caused his leukemia is without any scientific support, Holland said, adding that other 'WTC rescue workers and firefighters have no increased incidence of CLL or leukemia'.

One doctor concluded the overall health of the 69-year-old chief created a risk to himself, fellow firefighters and the community. Not only did the city deny his claim of a work related illness, the chief was placed on involuntary leave. Brooks gets paid the same as if he were still on the job, but the city has basically put him on the shelf until his state mandated retirement at age 70.

Brooks, however, says the question has already been answered: The World Trade Center Health Program has certified that his illness was directly tied to his exposure on 9/11. And, furthermore, he's fine and very capable of continuing as Utica's fire chief.

Known to share his opinion on city issues which sometimes oppose to efforts of Palmieri, Brooks has been outspoken about his belief that the Mayor was settling a personal score by removing him from his post. Something, of course, Palmieri has denied.

What is '92d'?

This past September 11, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law that allows government employees to access unlimited time-off to receive medical treatment for sicknesses they contracted due to their to 9/11 recovery efforts. When the employee goes on leave, the municipality paying bill can be reimbursed by the state, according to Brooks' attorney Earl Redding.

Brooks filed a second claim with the City of Utica under this new state law, which again was denied by the city. Again, the chief wasn't seeking more money, more benefits or healthcare, just 'acknowledgement', he says.

''Acknowledgement that I had a work related injury and it was documented by a national organization that did a complete analysis with the best doctors, best scientists, best lab people in the country and said that, 'This condition that you have is related to your activities at Ground Zero'...and, Mayor Palmieri said, 'No it isn't','' Brooks said outside of the State Supreme Court in Rome on Monday.

''I did it for other firefighters that were there, some that have cancer. I did it for maybe a police officer that might get injured. And, I did it for my wife too, that they basically called a liar,'' Brooks said.

Joining WIBX First News with Keeler in the Morning on Tuesday, Brooks said he isn't the only Utica firefighter who went to Ground Zero on 9/11 to who contracted cancer.

Redding makes his case:

  • Brooks is getting his regular pay, as he normally would have of, while utilizing accrued sick leave
  • His health insurance would remain exactly the same.
  • Any treatments related to Brooks' CLL is paid in full by the World Trade Center Health Organization, which has already certified that his CLL was connected to 9/11

The Chief's salary, Redding argues, could be recouped by the city if it would accept the determination of the World Trade Center Health Program.

''If Chief Brooks it out from [this past] May until he's mandatory retireable next year, it would be a huge saving to the city - at least 165,000 they could be reimbursed from the state,'' said Redding, who added that city's stance seems upside-down.

The city's attorneys don't believe it's that cut and dry, and think New York State could contest the validity of Brooks' CLL diagnosis to his time at Ground Zero - especially considering an independent doctor who examined Brooks concluded it was not. They've argued that accepting Brooks' CLL was work related exposes the city and taxpayers to liability when it comes to medical costs.

State Supreme Court Judge Patrick MacRae heard arguments Monday but hasn't yet ruled on the matter.