Sailors Talk of Dumping Radioactive Waste at Sea
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.