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USS Calhoun County sailors dumped thousands of tons of radioactive waste into ocean via Tampa Bay Times

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.

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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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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