Meltdown in Venice: Larry Burgan wages an uphill battle to prove he was poisoned by radioactive waste

During the week before the Fourth of July nine years ago, Larry Burgan came to believe that he'd been exposed to thousands of pounds of radioactive dust. Like nearly 200 other workers at the Spectrulite Consortium factory in Venice, Illinois, Burgan was told to take the week off.

At the time Burgan operated a 50-ton hydraulic press. The machine, the size of a small locomotive, was used to heat and mold hunks of hi-tech aluminum alloy. The metal would later become, among other things, parts for American fighter jets.

For a man who grew up in a family of Granite City steelworkers, the union benefits and $15 an hour he earned at the job were a dream come true. Burgan says his coworkers nicknamed him "Lucky Larry," because he was always assigned extra overtime and had a knack for finding loose change on the factory floor. So when his boss stopped by to tell him to enjoy a few extra days of vacation, Burgan assumed it was more good fortune.

Then he found out the real reason for the extended respite: Army Corps of Engineers inspectors were coming to clean up radioactive waste in the factory's roof beams. The contaminants were leftovers from the 1950s, when the federal government used the facility — then owned by the Dow Chemical Company — for nuclear weapons and fuel research.

Now 50 years old with a thick gray mustache and a week's worth of stubble on his pale, sunken cheeks, Burgan recalls how preparations for the Corps' visit focused almost entirely on the area around his workspace. He says he was so nervous about what might happen while he was away that he volunteered to help out as a janitor in order to witness the cleanup.

The inspectors, Burgan recalls, wore full-body hazardous-material suits. When they scaled the rafters 45 feet above his desk, he says he was terrified, certain that whatever it was they were removing had rained down on him during his years working below.

Burgan says he asked repeatedly if the waste was dangerous. "They'd say, 'Oh, you'd practically have to go up there and eat it for it to hurt you.' I said, 'Well, why are you going through such an extensive cleanup if it ain't that bad?' They said, 'It's just the government's way of wasting money.'

"I found out later they could only work up there for one hour a day for a week," he adds bitterly. "If it's only safe for people in moon suits to be up there for one hour a day, how safe is it for the guy who worked underneath it for eight or ten hours a day for ten years? If the dust that's up there is so radioactive, what happens when it falls and lands on my desk, or in my lunch pail?"

Eighteen months after the Corps' visit, in December 2001, Burgan developed severe arthritis in his joints and painful rashes all over his body, which boiled and cracked his skin. He consulted numerous doctors but, he says, not one could explain his illnesses, let alone treat them.

"I couldn't walk. It was horrible. I was down to 145 pounds. My wife had to hold me and walk me like I was Grandpa who was 80 years old. One day we were walking to the bathroom, and I looked in the mirror, and I didn't recognize myself. I accepted I was dying at that time."

Burgan lost his job in 2002 when his union went on strike and Spectrulite went bankrupt. He's been unemployed ever since. Permanently disabled, he and his wife survive on Social Security.

Though his condition has gradually improved, an unsightly rash of raw red scabs remains on his arms, legs and hands. Joint pain still leaves him crippled at times. Two years spent on opiate-based pain medication, he says, caused several of his front teeth to fall out.

Burgan blames the radioactive dust. He's not alone. Residents of Venice also claim that hazardous materials used at the aluminum plant over the years are responsible for diseases that range in severity from asthma to deadly cancers. Many of their homes stand a few yards away from the factory walls, alongside a field used for decades as a dumping ground for industrial waste.

Led by Burgan, a small group calling themselves the Committee of Concerned Citizens has hired a local attorney in hopes of winning the sort of jackpot legal judgment that has become the stuff of bestsellers and Hollywood blockbusters.

Trouble is, their lawsuits hinge on finding scientists and doctors willing and able to connect the dots and say the toxins from the factory are directly responsible for poisoning them.

So far, that search has proved next to impossible.

Venice (pop. 2,500) is a bleak, hard-luck town on the eastern banks of the Mississippi River, a few miles south of Granite City. On Broadway, the town's main drag, a rundown chop-suey restaurant and a mini-mart with neon malt-liquor signs glowing behind barred windows are the only businesses not yet shuttered.

Wedged between small shotgun-style brick houses, abandoned, burnt-out mobile homes dot the quiet residential streets north and south of downtown. The most recent census shows that 94 percent of the population is African American, and nearly half live below the poverty line.

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