Monday, May 5, 2008

Former nuclear workers suffer fatal diseases

Article published on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2008

A warning sign on a fence that surrounds what is described as an “environmental restoration site.”
PINELLAS COUNTY – Hundreds of area residents who worked at a 97-acre highly classified General Electric facility in Largo that once manufactured atomic and hydrogen bomb components today suffer from cancer and other disorders, affecting the lungs, skin and internal organs.

A U.S. Department of Labor report says 433 different toxic substances were discovered at the facility during the time it was in operation from 1957 through the early 1990s. The toxins, the report said, include acids, asbestos, various forms of barium, cobalt, krypton and plutonium.

At least one area of the property – now called the Young-Rainey STAR Center at 7887 Belcher Road that is

owned by Pinellas County – still is fenced off by the U.S. Department of Energy with signs reading “Environmental Restoration Site” and “Contaminated Areas, Avoid Contact with Soil and Water.”

The plant in its heyday used at least 32 types of radiation-producing equipment, including X-ray machines and electron beam welders used in the production of neutron generators for use in nuclear weapons, such as atomic and hydrogen bombs.

No figure is available on the total number of workers that have died because the government apparently isn’t telling or simply doesn’t know. Survivors, however, said people who worked at the sprawling Largo facility died of cancer and other disease while the so-called “Pinellas Plant” was in operation.

Former nuclear workers in other parts of the country suffer similar diseases.

During a 2004 meeting of the NIOSH Dose Reconstruction Project – NIOSH stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – one former nuclear worker demanded a list of all cancer deaths at Pinellas Plant. He alleged that there were 10 deaths in the Tools Division alone. Two were supervisors and eight were workers, reports said.

Prior to the plant’s closing barrels of nuclear waste were removed from the former cow pasture once known as Bryan Dairy Farm and shipped to other locations, including to a nuclear waste facility in Utah and another in South Carolina.

Employees and former supervisors who worked at the plant report that at one point employees were warned not to use the plant’s water fountains due to contamination. One of the ponds on the property also was fenced off due to contamination.

That pond, according to a Pinellas County municipal police officer who worked security at the site, was the home of a two-headed turtle named “Neutron Jack” by workers.

Other former workers verified that mutant turtles lived on the property.

Surviving workers, many of them suffering fatal diseases, are angry that the government, specifically the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Labor, are not doing more in the way of compensation and providing medical benefits. They have organized a tightly-knit group called the Nuclear Workers of Florida that already met twice to plot a course of action that might include a class action lawsuit.

Former Pinellas Plant workers at a Dec. 10 meeting in Clearwater spoke publicly about their life-threatening illnesses they believe was caused by radiation, chemicals and other toxins. Most are cancer sufferers. One man broke down as he spoke of his wife who died six years ago of cancer.

At that meeting also were representatives of area political leaders, including U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez, Reps. C.W. Bill Young, Gus Bilirakis and Kathy Castor.

None of the federal lawmakers themselves were present, but a spokeswoman for Young said the congressman recently met in Washington with Department of Labor officials for two hours. She would not elaborate, saying that she was not at liberty to disclose what happened during the meeting. Nothing was ever disclosed.

After the plant closed in the 1990s, it was taken over by the Pinellas County Industrial Council that later became the Pinellas County Industrial Development Authority. The facility was rechristened the Young-Rainey STAR Center after the congressman and former Pinellas County Commissioner Charles “Chuck” Rainey, who are credited with transforming the site into a commercial venture.

STAR is the moniker for Science Technology and Research.

The history of Pinellas Plant dates back to 1956 when General Electric built the original 161,000-square-foot building that remains today. The land, then a pasture, in 1956 was isolated from housing, stores and other buildings. Lockheed-Martin took over the plant for a brief period in the early 1990s. Prior to 1956 General Electric operated a smaller facility in St. Petersburg near 22nd Avenue and the I-275 overpass.

General Electric sold the facility to the then-U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, now known as the U.S. Department of Energy, which then awarded General Electric a contract to operate the facility for 25 years. Pinellas Plant was to develop, engineer and manufacture components for America’s nuclear weapons program. Over approximately 30 years of operation the plant grew to 750,000 square feet before it closed about 10 years ago.

The Department of Energy sold the property to Pinellas County. Included in the sale was 50,000 pieces of property that included an analytical laboratory, machine shop, manufacturing and office equipment. To complete the transition from a defense to a commercial facility the Pinellas Plant Community Reuse Organization was created.

The property today is home to approximately 30 businesses ranging from CVS/Pharmacy, Inc. to U.S. Department of Defense contractors.

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