It happened with Agent Orange in Vietnam and the tainted water supply at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The military's handling of toxic chemicals exposes its employees to contamination, then it denies the danger years later when the health effects begin to show — and the Department of Veterans Affairs follows suit. Now Tampa Bay Times staff writer William Levesque has uncovered the story of the USS Calhoun County, a naval vessel used for up to 15 years to dump radioactive waste into the depths of the ocean, exposing crewmen to radiation in the process. The Navy is denying the radiation and VA is blocking benefits to a deceased veteran who appeared to have been sickened by exposure. A thorough investigation is warranted to discern the scope of contamination on Calhoun County and locate its victims and their families who deserve compensation and an apology.
The Navy says the Calhoun County was not a dangerous ship on which to work for the men, up to 1,000 of them, who served on the vessel after World War II, when it would routinely carry barrels of atomic waste to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for dumping. But Levesque found strong evidence that the sailors who were rolling the 55-gallon steel drums overboard, without much basic training or protective clothing, were exposed to sustained radiation at levels that can cause serious harm.
For instance, deck logs show that several shipments of radioactive waste emitted 17 rems per hour of radioactivity, despite being housed in a concrete encasement. That equals about 1,700 chest X-rays. And when the ship was decommissioned in 1962, it was not possible to reduce the radioactivity to safe enough levels for it to be sold.
But rather than locate the men who worked on the Calhoun County to track their health, the VA and Navy has ignored them or denied them VA benefits for lack of evidence that military service caused their ailments.
In the 1950s, George Albernaz was one of those who pushed contaminated barrels on the Calhoun County. He kept detailed and contemporaneous logs of the hundreds of tons of atomic waste he and his fellow crewman handled. Then, in 1988, at the age of 54, Albernaz started suffering symptoms that befuddled doctors. Eventually they tied it to one possibility, vasculitis, an inflammation of blood vessels that can limit blood supply to the brain or other organs — a problem that can be caused by radiation exposure. Despite the evidence, Albernaz was denied VA benefits and died of heart failure in 2009 while his case was on appeal. His widow continues to pursue the case.
Yet in 1998, the VA ruled that another crewman's death was caused by his exposure to radiation on the Calhoun County and granted benefits to his widow. But consistency isn't the VA's strong suit. The agency is better at dragging its feet and tying veterans up in red tape. Meanwhile, the Navy should be doing a better job looking out for the men who served. The evidence is overwhelming that the Calhoun County exposed its crew to dangerous radioactivity. It should be doing what it can for these men and their heirs.