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The Atomic Sailors — Serving aboard the USS Calhoun County during its days as a radioactive waste dumpster

USS Calhoun County sailors dumped thousands of tons of radioactive waste into ocean

They asked the dying Pasco County man about his Navy service a half-century before. He kept talking about the steel barrels. They haunted him, sea monsters plaguing an old sailor.

"We turned off all the lights," George Albernaz testified at a 2005 Department of Veterans Affairs hearing, "and … pretend that we were broken down and … we would take these barrels and having only steel-toed shoes … no protection gear, and proceed to roll these barrels into the ocean, 300 barrels at a trip."

Not all of them sank. A few pushed back against the frothing ocean, bobbing in the waves like a drowning man. Then shots would ring out from a sailor with a rifle at the fantail. And the sea would claim the bullet-riddled drum.

Back inside the ship, Albernaz marked in his diary what the sailors dumped into the Atlantic Ocean. He knew he wasn't supposed to keep such a record, but it was important to Albernaz that people know he had spoken the truth, even when the truth sounded crazy.

For up to 15 years after World War II, the crew of Albernaz's ship, the USS Calhoun County, dumped thousands of tons of radioactive waste into the Atlantic Ocean, often without heeding the simplest health precautions, according to Navy documents and Tampa Bay Times interviews with more than 50 former crewmen.

Albernaz began a battle for his life in 1988 when part of his brain began to die, mystifying doctors who eventually concluded the rare ailment might be linked to radiation. He filed a VA claim for benefits in 2001 that was repeatedly rejected, often with tortured government reasoning.

The VA and Navy told Albernaz he was not exposed to radiation on the Calhoun County, a vessel the Navy ordered sunk in 1963 because it was radioactive. The VA ignored Navy documents discovered by a former congressional aide proving the ship's radioactivity, telling Albernaz they were "unsubstantiated." And the Navy today points to Cold War records that are incomplete and unreliable as proof crewmen were not exposed to dangerous radiation.

The Navy and VA's insistence that atomic waste on the Calhoun County was not dangerous comes 15 years after the VA linked the death of a crewman who served with Albernaz to radiation.

Adequate health safeguards were followed and the crew was not exposed to dangerous radiation, Navy spokesman Kenneth Hess said.

"The Navy did not scuttle the ship because of radioactivity," he said, "but because it was at the end of its useful life."

Up to 1,000 men served on the Calhoun County in the years it dumped radioactive waste, a practice that continued until about 1960 — two years before the ship's decommissioning.

It's impossible to know how many suffered unusual health problems after they left the ship. The VA and Navy never followed up on their health. Some got sick and never filed VA claims. And after more than a half-century, much of the crew has died.

Albernaz died in 2009 of heart failure after his health was ruined by radiation, his wife says. He was 75.

"George believed his own government thought he was lying, like it was all a figment of his imagination," said his widow, Bernice Albernaz, 69, who continues the fight with the VA that her husband began 12 years ago.

She said her husband didn't lie. Sea monsters did troll the depths. They remain there still.

• • •

It was a ship built for war.

LST 519 was launched in early 1944 and quickly put in harm's way. The ship took supplies to North Africa and participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, surviving convoy attacks by German airplanes. The name Calhoun County was added in 1955.

LST stands for "landing ship, tank." The ship, nearly as long as a football field, carried tons of supplies that could be disgorged through bow doors on a beach or stored on its large top deck.

With the end of World War II, the ship began dumping the military's old or defective ammunition into the Atlantic from ammunition depots up and down the East Coast, usually in waters at least 6,000 feet deep. But it wasn't long before a second mission was added for the crew of 75 or so men.

The opening of the Atomic Age brought a vexing problem — how to dispose of radioactive waste.

The Atomic Energy Commission, which then managed most aspects of U.S. atomic energy policy, settled on a cheap, convenient fix: ocean dumping. The Calhoun County soon became the only Navy ship on the East Coast dumping radioactive waste.

The containers looked like ordinary 55-gallon steel drums. Nobody on the ship was quite sure what was in them.

They arrived by the hundreds by train and truck at the ship's home port at Sandy Hook Bay, N.J. or the ship picked them up at Floyd Bennett Field on Long Island. Less often, waste was picked up at other ports, including Boston. The hottest waste came from Floyd Bennett. At times, the barrels were marked with color-coded dots or a painted X. The "red dot" barrels were said to be the most dangerous.

Not that it mattered. Few if any of the crewmen, according to interviews, received any special training on handling the waste. They said they handled the "red dot" barrels the same as all the rest.

Much of the waste, which was packed in concrete, came from Brookhaven National Laboratory, a government research facility on Long Island that had a reactor and generated radioactive material.

Several shipments emitted 17 rems per hour of radioactivity even after the waste was encased in concrete, Calhoun County's deck logs show. That is the equivalent of about 1,700 typical chest X-rays.

Two sailors would place each barrel on its side and roll it to the edge of the ship. The Calhoun County, with its flat, shallow bottom, always shifted crazily in the waves, back and forth, a metronome marking time for a dangerous waltz.

As the ship tilted in their direction, the men released their barrel with a push and let gravity help take it overboard.

The ship carried the waste out off the continental shelf several times a year to waters of varying depths, usually 6,000 to 12,000 feet. The designated dumping areas were a full day's trip up to 200 miles out to sea, though several men said in interviews that the ship would dump much closer to the coast when the weather was bad.

After they handled the barrels, the men went below deck to drink coffee or eat.

No documents appear to exist showing what exactly the Navy dumped. Deck logs list dumping coordinates, tonnage handled and drum radiation levels — but often, even that information is missing. And from 1946 to 1953, the Calhoun County's officers were not recording any dumps in deck logs at all.

"We do not have complete historical records that would enable accurate estimates of the exact types or total quantity of radiological waste the Navy disposed of at sea," Hess, the Navy spokesman, said. Still, he insists the waste was "low level."

The Navy says some of the waste included contaminated lab equipment and "potential nuclear fuel sources." In the 1970s, scientists found small quantities of plutonium and cesium had leached from some barrels.

A 1954 government handbook on ocean dumping said precise records were critical. Atomic science was new. Dumping could cause "undesirable consequences" then unforeseen, it said.

• • •

At the Brookhaven lab, workers were advised at length about the safest way to deal with radiation. In 1957, the lab produced a booklet for its employees called ABC's of Radiation.

Radiation, the booklet said, "should be regarded with respect, but it need not be feared. Complete safety is possible, if the necessary rules and procedures are followed. Danger lurks only for the uninformed or careless."

Radioactivity can damage a cell's DNA or chemical bonds in the human body. But sometimes cells are unable to repair themselves, especially as radiation levels rise.

Scientists believe this can lead to cancer or other illnesses.

On the Calhoun County, according to documents and interviews, radiation was neither feared nor respected. "We had no supervision," said Bob Berwick, 82, of Laguna Niguel, Calif., an officer on the ship in 1952 and 1953. "We were on our own."

From the Brookhaven booklet: "To guard against contamination, special protective clothing is available in radiation areas. . . . Clothing worn where radioactive materials are present is specially marked and washed."

None of the crew interviewed for this story recall getting special clothing or gear during dumping operations. An exception were the cotton gloves provided to the crew in the early to mid-1950s.

"We threw the gloves overboard into the ocean when we were done with them," said Richard Tkaczyk, 85, of Buffalo, N.Y., who served on the ship from 1949 to 1951.

Several men said they were told to shower and take off clothing for washing after dumps. But for much of the ship's history, this was not done, according to crewmen.

"The laboratory employs shielding extensively to protect you against . . . radiation."

No special shielding was ever used on the Calhoun County. In fact, some of the ship's crew slept in quarters immediately under the barrels on the main deck. The deck plating was less than an inch thick. Atop that was wooden planking. Radiation still seeped below.

Albernaz told the VA in 2007 he recalled a trip when an AEC worker came through the crew quarters with a Geiger counter.

"It would go off like a machine-gun and he would say to us, 'Okay. Get your pillow, blanket and mattress. We're moving you to the tank deck,' " Albernaz said.

But the tank deck was under barrels, too. "So actually, there was really no place on that ship that was safe," Albernaz said.

"All members of the staff who work in radiation areas are required to wear a small film badge, which is darkened by radiation, or a pocket meter resembling a fountain pen. … Meters are read daily, badges every week to ensure nobody is overexposed."

At times, the men of the Calhoun County wore both types of radiation detectors. But interviews show they were often missing. Other times, the badges would be handed out immediately before a dump and retrieved immediately afterward. So radiation exposure during the three-day round trip to dumping areas was not documented.

And radioactive barrels might be stored on the ship for days at a time before the ship sailed, continually exposing the crew, according to deck logs.

And even when they had detectors, many of the crew did not take them seriously.

"When the badge turned purple, that meant you had too much radiation," said Andre Vernot, 75, of Columbia, Md., an officer on the ship from 1960 to 1962. "Our rules were, when the badge turns purple, turn it in and get another one."

"Radioactive materials can be harmful if within or on the body. … This is why eating or smoking is forbidden in some radiation areas."

The barrels loaded on the Calhoun County sometimes leaked, especially in the early days of dumping. William Dillow, 90, of St. Augustine, was an ordnance disposal specialist on the ship from 1957 to 1960. He vividly recalled one shipment.

"They had a leaker and the flatbed [truck] was contaminated," he said. The Navy's solution wasn't elegant. The flatbed was loaded on the ship and tossed in the ocean along with the barrels.

When the dumping was done, sailors washed out bin areas with high-pressure water while others used brooms to sweep out the deck. The men might then track that water, and perhaps radioactive particles, into every part of the ship, according to interviews.

One sailor absently sat on a red-dot barrel for a few minutes during one operation, said Elmer Peter, an 81-year-old Lawrenceville, Ga., resident who was a ship's pipe fitter from 1955 to 1956. There was an apparent delay in reporting the incident, and the sailor went about his business.

"They eventually went to this guy's bunk with a Geiger counter and there was so much contamination, it pegged the counter," Peter said. "They had to destroy everything on the bunk and everything else in the area. I never saw him again."

A Navy spokesman dismissed that the men sleeping under the barrels faced danger.

"Even an eighth of an inch of steel can shield people from many low-level radiological waste materials, and even a distance of one foot provides additional protection," said Hess.

The crew sometimes noticed the civilian dock workers who loaded the waste taking precautions the Navy ignored.

"Once we pulled into Sandy Hook, and the civilian workers who were loading this stuff had exposure suits on, masks and everything," said Vernot. "And we're out there in our shorts, no shirts. That really p----- us off."

• • •

There were jokes, of course, about the entire ship being radioactive and how the barrels would make them all sterile.

But the ship was radioactive.

On June 5, 1956, according to Navy memos, Naval Research Laboratory technicians took radiation readings on the Calhoun County before barrels were loaded on its deck.

Parts of the ship were radioactive, a memo to the Third Naval District commandant said. The ship's captain, Herbert Hern, was ordered to "decontaminate affected areas" as soon as possible.

The discovery prompted a more thorough examination of dumping operations. Navy brass did not like what they found. The ship's handling of this dangerous waste was sloppy, haphazard.

The Navy today says all crewmen were trained in the use of dosimeters, or radiation badges, to ensure none received a dangerous dose.

Readings, the Navy says, were documented.

But on Aug. 30, 1956 — a decade after dumping began — a memo from Navy commanders said Calhoun County "personnel are not familiar with monitoring and decontamination procedures " and "radiological exposure records of personnel are not maintained" properly.

The Navy ordered the ship to inspect barrels before they were loaded to ensure none leaked radioactive material, a particular problem.

Ship's surfaces were washed, sandblasted, repainted. Available records do not say if any of this worked.

The crew didn't worry, but few of them knew their workplace was radioactive.

• • •

George Albernaz, then 22, was excited to be on the Calhoun County as its newest quartermaster. He was born in Fall River, Mass., and had hardly been away from home. He thought he was going to be part of the Navy's storied amphibious force.

He took a diary with him and recounted his adventure in the words of a wide-eyed sailor.

"This is the story of the most fascinating experience of my life … doing a job I never dreamed existed, serving on a ship whose days as a man of war are but a story in the past but today she is engaged in a service equally important as any fighting ship in the Navy," he wrote.

It wasn't long before Albernaz began keeping a different kind of diary. He titled this new log "Nuclear Waste Dumping Diary."

Jan. 20 1957: "371 tons atomic waste."

Feb. 7, 1957: "368 tons atom waste."

Nov. 13, 1957: "299 (tons) poison gas (and) A.W."

One of Albernaz's last entries was on June 12, 1958: "200 tons. Spec. weapons," or special weapons. That was the day, Albernaz later told his wife, that he helped dispose of an atomic bomb.

The Calhoun County sailed out of Norfolk, Va. with two giant crates. The ship's log noted it dumped "confidential material" at 2:31 a.m.

Albernaz's wife said he told her about that trip. He said the crew was told the crates contained two atomic bombs. Other sailors interviewed said the occasional dumping of disassembled atomic bombs occurred several times in its history.

• • •

On March 10, 1958, one of the Calhoun County's crew, Harvey Lucas, was ordered to a Navy hospital. He was in pain and vomiting a brownish liquid, hospital records show.

Two months later, the ship's muster rolls show, Albernaz was hospitalized for two weeks. His wife said he later told her he had severe nausea. The two men were among a handful that year with long hospitalizations, records show. Albernaz later said doctor's diagnosed them with stomach ulcers.

Michael Gardner, a ship's officer in the early 1960s, said he saw odd stomach ailments.

"I distinctly remember crew members being off the vessel and sent to the hospital," said Gardner, 73, of New York City. "The only reason I remember it is because I had to find ways to cover for certain people when they were taken off the ship."

On March 28, 1958, Rowland Burnham, the Calhoun County's new captain, asked his superiors for $37,000 to replace the wooden deck that held radioactive barrels during dumping operations. The ship, it seemed, was still radioactive.

"Scrubbing, washing or scraping away of some of the wood has not removed all of the contamination," Burnham said in a memo. He said the radiation was low, just 1 millirem. A typical chest x-ray is 10 millirems.

"But the personnel are being continuously exposed to it," the captain said. "It is felt that this condition is a health hazard and should be eliminated."

For more than a year, records show, the Navy did nothing, perhaps because it was thinking of mothballing the ship. It needed major repairs.

Early in 1959, the Navy finally replaced the deteriorating deck. That, however, created a new problem: The debris was radioactive. Civilian workers put it in barrels with concrete — 125 in all.

The Calhoun County then sailed out and dumped part of itself into the sea.

• • •

On Nov. 8, 1962, the Calhoun County was finally decommissioned in a ceremony at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Crew and family sat in chairs on the ship's contaminated deck. A band played. The crew was reassigned.

The Navy planned to sell the ship, either as is or for scrap. Its scrap value was not insignificant — $62,000. But ultimately, the Navy realized it could not be sold.

A Dec. 13 memo by the chief of the Navy's Bureau of Ships doubted radiation on the Calhoun County could ever be reduced to levels then considered safe. The memo noted the Navy had never been able to decontaminate a radioactive ship.

"Complete paint stripping and sandblasting have failed to accomplish this (on the Calhoun County) and in the cases of ships contaminated in nuclear weapons tests," the memo said.

So the Navy ordered the Calhoun County sunk.

Navy officer George Self, 83, of Pahrump, Nev., got the job to ready the Calhoun County for sinking. The end came sometime in 1963. The Navy roped off several compartments inside the ship, Self said, and posted signs throughout warning of radiation.

The ship left Norfolk Naval Base and a submarine fired two torpedoes at it in a gunnery exercise. One punched a hole near the engine room, but the Calhoun County refused to sink.

The Navy towed it back to Norfolk and tied up at a pier to figure out what to do next. It was only then that the Calhoun County started sinking.

Self got an emergency call at home from Navy brass. They were apoplectic that a radioactive ship was sinking at the base.

Divers plugged the hole. Sea water was pumped out. And the ship was towed to deep water.

Self did not go out on the second trip, so he is unsunsure how the ship met its end. The Navy said demolition charges sent the old LST to the bottom.

• • •

The years after his 1960 Navy discharge were cruel to Calhoun County crewman Harvey Lucas.

Lucas, a Denver man who spent more than three years on the ship, had always been suspicious of the Calhoun County's mission even while still a deckhand. Like Albernaz, Lucas tried to document the ship's work. He stole a radiation badge and took pictures of the barrels.

"He documented everything," said daughter Jeanine Lucas.

His family said he wondered if the work had been far more dangerous than the Navy let on. Those concerns could only have been stoked when his uncle, George Dutcher, who served on the ship with Lucas, died of cancer in the late 1960s still in his 40s.

Lucas left the Navy and developed osteoporosis. It was so severe that a doctor said he had the bones of a 95-year-old, his family told the VA. He and his wife had five children born with birth defects or health problems.

Cancer took Lucas, too. He died on June 17, 1985, at age 47 of leiomyosarcoma, an aggressive soft-tissue cancer. It has been documented in women who in the 1950s and 1960s received radiation treatment for excessive menstrual bleeding.

Damage from the disease was so bad a funeral home couldn't embalm him. Lucas was buried in a body bag.

Lucas, and then his wife after his death, battled the VA for benefits, arguing the radiation caused his cancer and brittle bones. The VA repeatedly denied a link, at first saying the ship hadn't carried radioactive waste.

In 1990, his wife, Barbara Lucas, contacted Karl Morgan, who is sometimes called the "father of health physics." He had been head health physicist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for 29 years. He helped set standards for radioactive-waste shipping containers like those on the Calhoun County.

"It is my opinion that the Navy was very irresponsible in not informing those engaged in this hazardous waste operation (of) the inherent danger and the necessity to minimize their radioactive exposure and especially to avoid inhalation or ingestion of any of the loose radioactive waste," Morgan told the VA. "It is impossible to condone the fact that these service men did not at all times wear film badges."

William Kemper, a retired Naval physicist, estimated Lucas had been exposed to radiation five times greater than the legal limit when he served.

Kemper told the VA, "it seems most likely that he had ingested some cobalt 90 or other (radioactive) waste in . . . his duties."

In 1998, the VA finally ruled Lucas's death was caused by radiation he was exposed to on the Calhoun County and approved benefits for his widow.

• • •

George Albernaz didn't talk much about his almost two years on the Calhoun County after he was discharged in 1958.

He didn't like discussing the atomic dumping with strangers, his wife recalled. He sensed, when he did talk, folks just assumed he was exaggerating his Navy service.

Bernice and George Albernaz met at a dance hall in Massachusetts in the late 1960s. Everybody liked George. A gentle man, he had been an altar boy until he was 15, was soft-spoken with an open, trusting face. Bernice thought he had kind eyes.

The couple married in 1969, and when their son was born in 1970, they laughed. The barrels hadn't sterilized him after all.

In 1988 at age 54, Albernaz began having troubling symptoms.

He lost weight. He began dropping things with his left hand, which felt weakened. He tripped over his left foot and couldn't hold the newspaper up in the morning. When the couple talked about it, they just brushed away any concern.

"You're getting old," Bernice Albernaz told him.

On Aug. 31, 1988, her husband drove to work as shipping supervisor at a Fall River, Mass., factory curtain outlet. During the day, Albernaz fell, shaking uncontrollably with a seizure. He was rushed to the hospital. His wife thought he might have had a stroke or heart attack.

A brain scan and tests brought the worst news. Doctors diagnosed a brain tumor. They prepped Albernaz for surgery.

But no evidence of a tumor was found during surgery. The tissue in one part of his brain was dying. That explained Albernaz's left-side weakness.

The dying brain tissue mystified doctors, but they discharged Albernaz.

He returned in October for more brain scans. The shadow on his brain had grown. Doctors began to doubt their earlier assurances that it wasn't a brain tumor, medical records show, and Albernaz underwent chemotherapy.

Two additional brain surgeries followed. Biopsies finally ruled out a tumor. But that good news was tempered by a growing weakness on his left side. His arm was becoming useless. His left leg was affected as if the malady was moving down his body like snake venom spreading from a bite.

Doctors were still baffled. Samples of Albernaz's brain were sent to the Centers for Disease Control. He began to tell doctors about those long-ago barrels.

A doctor made a consultation note about Albernaz's description of the Calhoun County's work. "He was on a ship where the work was done with no protection. … He did not appear to have any radiation consequences at the time. . . . There's the possibility that he got some delayed radiation necrosis effect which can appear many years later."

It wasn't until 2006 doctors began to believe Albernaz's troubles were tied to vasculitis, an inflammation of blood vessels that can limit the blood supply to an organ such as the brain. His doctors told him radiation could cause this. But records indicate they would never be certain of the vasculitis diagnosis.

Albernaz became paralyzed on his left side. Seizures continued. He walked only with a leg brace or cane. By the end of his life, he used a wheelchair. Albernaz couldn't get out of bed without help. His life of bowling, dancing and fishing was over.

Albernaz would never work again.

• • •

In 2001, Albernaz filed a claim for benefits with the VA. He wrote letters and emails to anyone he could find who served on the Calhoun County, asking if they had become ill.

A crewman named George Lindsay responded, telling Albernaz he hadn't been sick.

"(But) I do believe that we were exposed without being told what could happen to us and our families," Lindsay wrote him. "I find the biggest problem is that there is no follow up on any of the crew members. . . . Not even a phone call from anyone in the government to find out if we are well."

Weeks after Albernaz mailed in his benefits claim, he got a letter from a woman who would provide the kind of evidence most veterans never see in years fighting the VA.

Deborah Derrick had been an aide to U.S. Rep. David Skaggs, a Colorado Democrat, in the late 1990s when she heard the Harvey Lucas story. She was mesmerized by his history on the ship.

She began researching the Calhoun County, hoping to write a book. She would hit pay-dirt.

In the National Archives, she found old Navy reports about the Calhoun County's radioactivity. She read about a captain's concerns the radiation was a health hazard for sailors. She was stunned to see reports showing the ship was deliberately sunk because it was contaminated with radioactivity.

She attended ship's reunions and tracked down crewmen. Then she found Albernaz.

With her piles of documents proving the ship's radioactivity, Derrick thought it would be impossible for anyone to deny the Calhoun County hadn't endangered its crew.

"I thought I was going to be the girl riding in on white horse to save the day," said Derrick, 52. "I thought I had incontrovertible evidence."

• • •

One of the VA's first responses to Albernaz, his wife said, was to tell him it could not find records that he served on the ship. But the couple found an old Calhoun County Christmas menu from the ship dated 1956 that listed his name.

In the years that followed, the VA discounted or ignored much of the evidence Albernaz presented. The VA talked of his "alleged involvement" in dumping atomic waste. The VA said Derrick's evidence was "unsubstantiated."

Albernaz submitted the letter from Morgan, the 29-year head of health physics at one of the nation's premier radiation labs who had offered an opinion in the Lucas case. Morgan criticized the Navy's low radiation estimates on the Calhoun County.

The VA told Albernaz it "is not familiar with Mr. Morgan's credentials." A child could become familiar with those credentials after 10 minutes on the Internet, Bernice Albernaz later said.

The VA dismissed an assessment by one of Albernaz's doctors that his necrotic brain tissue was caused by radiation because it "was based upon the history the veteran reported to him."

Though there are numerous documents in government archives showing the Calhoun County carried radioactive material, the government made little effort to substantiate Albernaz's claim.

Albernaz's testimony and evidence, the VA said, was "anecdotal."

The VA asked the Navy to check records to see if they showed Albernaz had been exposed to radiation. The Navy found records from 1958 and 1959 with a list of crewmen who wore radiation badges.

Every man on the Calhoun County, except for officers, handled the barrels. But the Navy said Albernaz was not listed in either year. As for readings in 1957, the Navy could find no records at all.

So the VA ruled in 2006: "Again, U.S. Navy Department confirms that there is no evidence to establish occupational exposure to ionizing radiation for this veteran during his active service."

"How can the Navy confirm that I wasn't exposed to ionizing radiation when I lived, ate and slept on (a) contaminated ship that was … put out of service because it was contaminated with radioactive waste from all the years this dumping took place?" Albernaz said in a letter to the VA. "I am insulted and disappointed."

The VA and Navy came to accept Albernaz was exposed to radiation on the Calhoun County. But his exposure, they said, was very low.

In 2004 the Albernazes moved to New Port Richey from Massachusetts.

• • •

On July 5, 2007, the Albernazes traveled to Washington, D.C., for a hearing at the Board of Veterans Appeals. Derrick went, too. Albernaz was sicker now, hardly able to travel.

Albernaz cried when he described his illness. He recalled a doctor banging his fist on a table while looking at Albernaz's brain scans and saying, "I would give my right eye to know what that is."

The judge seemed sympathetic.

"This is kind of what happened to the Vietnam veterans … with Agent Orange," hearing judge Lisa Barnard said then. "Nobody knew at the time, but if it kills everything else around, then that would have been a clue that it probably was not a good idea to spray around human beings."

Barnard tried to reassure Albernaz about obtaining incontrovertible proof linking his illness to the ship. "We don't need 100 percent absolute proof. We don't need somebody coming in saying it's beyond all shadow of a doubt this is what caused this. . . . I will try to do something to fix this and sort the situation out."

A month later, the judge sent the case back to the VA in Seminole so it could get more information from the Navy.

Barnard wrote, "This claim must be afforded expedited treatment."

Albernaz wouldn't live to see a final decision.

In August 2009, Albernaz sat up in bed and told his wife he couldn't breathe. Bernice Albernaz rushed him to the emergency room. He had suffered a heart attack. Doctors said he had just days to live.

He was taken to a hospice. Albernaz told his wife to keep fighting to get VA benefits. He told her never to quit. People had to know he had told the truth. "I want my story told," her husband told her.

Albernaz began reciting, almost inaudibly, a Portuguese prayer with a reassuring rhythm. It's a language he knew from his boyhood. His parents' native Portugal is a land of sailors and ships on the cusp of a great but perilous sea.

Hours later, Albernaz died. It was Aug. 8, 2009.

• • •

His wife kept her promise. She continued the fight.

Today, the VA says that even if Albernaz had been exposed to levels of radiation higher than estimates provided by Derrick in her research, he would not have been in danger.

"Mr. Albernaz's exposure … was far lower than the threshold dose known to cause damage," the VA said in a statement. "Also, his brain necrosis did not occur near the time of exposure, which is normally the case, but instead it occurred some 31 years later."

The Navy maintains the Calhoun County was a safe ship.

Calculations show that "the level of radiation onboard (the) Calhoun County even at the highest levels of potential exposure would not have led to any long-term negative health impacts, according to our radiation health experts."

The Navy declined to release specific radiation dose calculations from the ship because, it says, that would violate the privacy of crewmen.

The Navy said crewmen wore radiation monitors that showed "no monitored personnel received more than the safe occupational limit."

Bernice Albernaz is still appealing the VA's denial of her husband's claim.

"I'll fight them until the end," she said. "It's not about money anymore. My husband died broken-hearted. They have no clue what he went through. I just want to prove he was on the ship. He did what he said he did. These guys did what they said they did. The ship was radioactive. It all really did happen. This story wasn't made up."

The VA sent a letter to Albernaz earlier this year saying it was still gathering evidence.

"This claim," it said, "must be afforded expeditious treatment."

• • •

Civilian workers at Brookhaven, the lab that packaged much of the waste dumped by the Calhoun County, found it difficult to prove their on-the-job exposure to radiation in the Cold War led to cancers some of them suffered. Records were too incomplete. Some workers were never monitored.

So in 2010, the federal government decided they would no longer have to prove their specific radiation exposure to get financial compensation and medical care. If they worked at the lab at least 250 days from 1947 to 1979 and were diagnosed with one of 22 radiation-related cancers, they qualified.

Congress protects military personnel in much the same way. But none of the men who served on the Calhoun County are eligible for automatic VA benefits for radiation illnesses because they did not participate in underwater or atmospheric atomic tests and related activities, the government says.

Thus, the crewmen do not meet their country's definition of "Atomic Veteran."

About this story

The Tampa Bay Times examined thousands of pages of documentation and interviewed more than 50 former crewmen of the USS Calhoun County for this story. Bernice Albernaz of New Port Richey provided the Times with all Department of Veterans Affairs reports and correspondence she and her late husband received starting in 2001. Albernaz also provided letters the couple wrote to the VA, government officials and others and allowed the newspaper to review George Albernaz's medical records still in her possession. Albernaz also provided a copy of her daily diary from the time her husband first became ill in 1988.

The Times examined the file maintained by the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals in Washington, D.C., on Harvey Lucas' VA claim and examined ship records at the National Archives in College Park, Md., and New York City, including the ship's deck logs and muster rolls. These logs documented where the USS Calhoun County traveled and often noted when the ship dumped radioactive waste.

The Times interviewed Deborah Derrick, a former aide to U.S. Rep. David Skaggs, D-Colo., by phone and at her Arlington, Va., home. She also generously answered numerous questions by email about her research, which began in 1998. Derrick last week published a book about the ship, Half Lives: The True Story of an Atomic Waste Dumping Ship, a Government Cover-up, and the Veterans' Families Shaped By It All. Read more about the ship and her work at HalfLives.com. Derrick is president of Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Times researcher John Martin and photographer Joseph Garnett Jr. contributed to this report.

 

Tell us your story

If you are a veteran of the USS Calhoun County, are related to one who has died or have information about the ship, please contact Tampa Bay Times staff writer William R. Levesque at (813) 226-3432 or levesque@tampabay.com.

USS Calhoun County sailors dumped thousands of tons of radioactive waste into ocean 12/20/13 [Last modified: Monday, December 23, 2013 11:51am]
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