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.

"Venice was — I don't want to say 'blessed with' — three public-housing projects," says long-time mayor Tyrone Echols. "Nobody pays property taxes here."

Echols recounts his town's descent into despair, starting in the late 1950s, when desegregation led to a mass exodus by the majority white population. "The old saying was that by the time the white folks are moving out, there's nothing left," he says. "They were absolutely right. When I got here [to the mayor's office] in 1979, the city didn't have a five-cent piece to its name."

Andrew Theising, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, says Venice is typical of the industrial suburbs that took root in the area in the early part of the twentieth century. Back then Illinois allowed businesses to charter and govern their own cities. The city of Sauget, for instance, originally bore the name Monsanto, its corporate founder.

"These were all commercial interests," Theising explains. "Tax rates were set by them. Land use was regulated by them, as were environmental concerns. By creating a city, you are creating a lot of power for the companies that chartered these towns.

"A lot of people who were part of all the surrounding industry took up residence in Venice out of necessity," he continues. "And it's in the floodplain; the streets flooded — hence the name."

Given Venice's gritty industrial past, it is fitting that a hulking factory is the town's most prominent landmark. Nearly as big as the city itself, the drab single-story structure sprawls for nearly a half mile along Illinois State Route 3.

Originally built by the government to assemble tank turrets during World War II, ten interconnected buildings and 1.4 million square feet are housed beneath its flat concrete roof.

In 1952 the government sold the plant to Dow Chemical, which soon landed a defense contract to produce experimental thorium alloys, used mostly in missiles and high-speed aircraft, according to a Dow report.

Department of Labor records show that beginning in 1957, the Venice facility conducted experimental work in straightening uranium fuel rods and built nose cones for Titan ballistic missiles. It was a dangerous, labor-intensive business.

"It'd be so smoky you couldn't even see from here to the wall," recalls John Browley, a former factory worker from Venice. "You'd blow your nose later on, and black stuff would come out."

The work involving radiation ended in late 1960. By then, states a Department of Labor report, more than 80 tons of thorium and "an unknown" but "most likely small" amount of uranium had been processed at the plant. The report concedes that some workers were exposed to radiation at levels nearly 3,000 times the agency's current safety limit.

In 2000 Congress passed a law mandating that the Department of Labor pay $150,000 and medical benefits to any person who likely developed cancer as a result of working at an atomic-weapons or energy-research site. More than 460 former Venice factory employees — most of whom worked at the plant during the Dow Chemical era — applied for the funds. To date, 149 of the workers have qualified for nearly $16 million in total payouts.

Larry Burgan was among those whose claims were denied.

A chaotic mountain of paper — thousands of pages of documents, folders, hand-scrawled notes and envelopes — rises from the dining-room table in Burgan's modest Granite City home. The walls above are plastered with religious images, embroidered biblical passages and framed portraits of Christ.

"You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a picture of Jesus in this place," Burgan says with a laugh.

Apologizing for the clutter, he clears off a chair and explains that he's spent the last six years on a crusade to prove that he and dozens of other Spectrulite employees were poisoned.

"I'm fighting all these multibillion-dollar companies," he says. "You can't get a better David and Goliath story than that. But instead of slinging stones, I'm slinging facts and records."

Burgan's uphill battle began in March 2004, shortly after he applied for the Department of Labor fund that compensates workers at nuclear-research sites. His claim was rejected, mainly because he didn't work for Dow Chemical during the period when weapons research occurred. He also didn't have one of the 22 types of cancer that the government associates with radiation exposure.

"I knew I wasn't going to be able to collect from that fund because of that," concedes Burgan. "And I hope I never have to."

Instead, Burgan considers himself a victim of "residual contamination."

"In 1960 these employees were touching the uranium, and they should be compensated, and that's fair. But from 1961, all the up way to when I worked there, the radiation was coming down and touching us."

Through the Freedom of Information Act, Burgan obtained reams of documents from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency detailing four separate radiation cleanups that took place on the grounds of the Venice factory over the past twenty years.

Included in the files was a report on the Army Corps of Engineers' cleanup that occurred in the summer of 2000, when Burgan was observing as a janitor. The records show that approximately 60,000 pounds of dust and debris containing low levels of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium were removed from the factory's rafters. Burgan worked directly beneath a spot where radiation readings measured more than thirteen times the occupational safety limit.

Convinced that he alone had the evidence to prove he and his coworkers were exposed to radiation, Burgan says, he slept with a loaded AK-47 assault rifle next to his bed to protect the documents.

"My wife was worried. 'What if the house burns down? What if we get robbed?' I don't do that anymore, though. I pawned my gun after the first overdue gas bill we got."

In April 2007 Burgan contacted Penni Livingston, a Fairview Heights-based specialist in environmental litigation. "From evidence I looked through," Livingston recollects, "I thought these guys, these factory owners, could be criminally prosecuted."

But when she couldn't find an expert willing to conclude that the radiation involved in the case was as dangerous as Burgan suspects, the case stalled.

"We worked on it for a good six to nine months," says Livingston. "But medical causation is extremely difficult to prove. We weren't in a position to prove it at the time. When you try to get the medical side to say it was caused by radiation exposure, the doctors are chickenshit. And if they won't say it, I can't prove it."

Sharon Cotner, a project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis, is also skeptical that the dust above Burgan's head could have harmed him. "It had to be scraped up and vacuumed off the beams," she says. "It wasn't just floating around in the air. It was mainly a threat to utility workers who had to go up there and change light bulbs and things like that."

As for the inspectors in hazardous-materials suits that so alarmed Burgan, Cotner adds, "It's a standard precaution."

Burgan, though, refuses to give up the fight. He recently signed on with another Fairview Heights attorney, David Jerome, who has filed a workers' compensation claim on behalf of Burgan and approximately 25 other former Spectrulite employees. (Spectrulite declared bankruptcy in January 2003, but funds for compensation claims are still available through their insurance company.)

Jerome believes he can succeed where Livingston failed, because the burden of proof in workers' compensation claims is less stringent than in civil or criminal cases.

"You just have to show that the workplace 'may or could have caused and aggravated' this condition," Jerome explains. "But we still need medical experts to examine [the workers] and tell us whether these conditions are a byproduct to this radioactive poisoning."

Burgan is so confident Jerome will succeed that he went so far as to take out a loan in July against the expected payout. Based on a standard formula used to determine workers' compensation awards, he expects the settlement to total nearly $750,000.

Boasts Burgan: "My case is so strong and so good that this lending company already lent me over $5,500 to help me catch up on medical bills and help purchase a car."

Livingston, though, remains skeptical. "They wouldn't even say that Larry's psoriasis was caused by radiation," she says. "If I can't get a doctor who's working for me to say it, it's not going to happen."

In December 2008, Burgan's one-man campaign against his former employer seemed to be heading nowhere. Livingston closed the file on his case months before, and most of the cancer-stricken Dow workers had already cashed their compensation checks.

The only card Burgan had left to play was his lingering suspicion that the factory had also sickened other people in Venice, though he had no clue that anyone in the town was ill.

Then he received a phone call that changed everything.

The man who rang was a Venice native named Calvin Ratliff. Independently of Burgan, Ratliff had been compiling a list of illnesses in the community that he believed were tied to the factory.

"I thought, 'My God! I've been looking for this guy,'" Burgan says, recalling his first conversation with Ratliff. "He said, 'I drew a little map of the neighborhood, and I've been putting X's on houses with cancers next to the factory. I've got, like, twenty of them so far.'"

A soft-spoken man who wears a canvas baseball cap, Ratliff worked at the factory from 1979 to 1985, when it was owned by Consolidated Aluminum Corporation.

Joined by a half-dozen other Venice natives, they formed the Committee of Concerned Citizens and began planning the best way to gather evidence and pursue a lawsuit. They posted flyers at local churches and banks asking anyone with cancer or respiratory troubles to come forward. Eventually, the group compiled an informal list of 108 cases of cancer in the vicinity of the factory.

On weekends Ratliff went door to door and heard various accounts of how the factory's exhaust pipes spewed smoke and particulate, coating cars and houses with reddish-brown dust.

Ratliff calls the north end of Meridocia Avenue in Venice "ground zero." There, the road runs parallel to the southeast edge of the factory and comes to a dead end at a 40-acre field that marks the site's eastern boundary.

For more than three decades, beginning in the late 1950s, the field served as a receptacle for the sludge-like byproducts of the manufacturing process. In 1992 a private contractor removed from the area 106,000 tons of soil containing PCBs and traces of thorium. Today it's separated from a cluster of neighboring houses by a chainlink fence topped with barbed wire.

"On that block [residents in] fifteen of the twenty houses had respiratory problems," Ratliff claims. "The other five, nobody was home."

Another 30 homes on the street are situated just a few hundred feet from the walls of the plant. Living in one of the residences is 68-year-old Shirley Butler, whose husband died of cancer in 2005 at the age of 69.

"At night it would turn white back there," Butler recounts. "I guess they were letting out something, I don't know what it was. It was like a fog. We had to close our windows in the summertime just so we could breathe."

A few doors down, 62-year-old Fred Smith tells how two of his siblings died of lung cancer. He, too, now suffers from the disease. "I'm quite sure that factory is what caused it," he maintains.

Ratliff says he has personal motivations for pursuing a lawsuit. His father, a town alderman, died of brain cancer in 1974, and Ratliff and his sister both have sarcoidosis, a debilitating lung disease.

"I grew up 800 yards from that factory," he says. "My mother used to hang clothes on a line in the yard. With all those particles flying around, you lay on them, you sleep on them, you breathe them. The government says these elements caused cancer in those workers. You can't just say the toxins stopped at the workhouse gate."

In September, Gail Renshaw, of the powerful Metro East law firm LakinChapman, agreed to represent the citizens of Venice in what she hopes will become a class-action lawsuit against the trio of former factory owners. Renshaw says the firm is still in the early investigative stages and has yet to file suit.

Jarod Davis, a spokesman for Dow Chemical, declined to comment on the pending legal action. "To the best of our knowledge, we have not been formally served with this case," Davis wrote in an e-mail. "We will evaluate this complaint further if and when we are formally served."

David Warfield, a St. Louis attorney who represented Spectrulite in their bankruptcy filing, did not return several calls seeking comment.

At a meeting in November, Renshaw explained the situation to her skeptical clients. "From the records I've gathered, I don't have any doubt that toxic waste was there and was dumped there," she said. "But we also have to prove it caused all these injuries and illnesses these people seem to be having. A cancer cluster, just because it's there, is not enough. You have to prove it's connected to a specific cause.

"I've talked to a couple of doctors who feel there was stuff going on, but nobody has really made the connection," she concluded. "These are things that need to be proved. You can't speculate about it. It won't win your case."

On the surface, Venice's situation looks like just another all-too-familiar case of an industrial giant wronging its workers and the unsuspecting citizens of a small town. Thanks to films like A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich, the underdog-wins-lawsuit scenario is now a staple of popular culture.

In those two cases, however, the lawsuits dealt with single toxins that could be directly linked to a handful of specific diseases. The story that inspired Brockovich involved hexavalent chromium, which had seeped into the water supply of Hinkley, California, from a nearby Pacific Gas and Electric plant. The resulting illnesses in the town had a well-documented cause-and-effect relationship with chromium.

In Venice the circumstances are vastly more complicated — not least because the primary hazardous materials in question are low levels of thorium and uranium radiation.

Howard Dickson, president of the Health Physics Society, a Virginia-based network of radiation-safety experts, says that despite decades of research, radiation is still one of the most misunderstood phenomena on the planet.

"It's still a mysterious physical thing," Dickson says. "Very few people do understand radiation, and there's a natural inclination to say, 'That funny stuff is causing my problems.' The reality is there are very few illnesses we can ascribe to radiation."

Dr. Naomi Harley, a professor of environmental health at the New York University School of Medicine, points out that, unlike other radioactive elements, uranium and thorium must be inhaled or ingested in order to cause harm.

Members of the Committee of Concerned Citizens are angered by the doctor's statements. "How in the hell are you not going to ingest it?" asks Harvey Riley, another Venice native. "They blow it out of the factory all the time, and people grow gardens. If you're living next to a dust pile, you're going to breathe it. That's an arrogant attitude."

Harley, however, cautions that there have been no definitive studies linking the elements to cancers or other diseases. "It is very difficult to have a real exposure," she says. "If you inhale uranium or thorium, a very small portion will deposit on your lungs, but the radioactivity is so low, the doses are so low, so small and microscopic, that you really cannot develop a risk scenario."

Muddying the waters even further is the fact that Venice is located in one of the most polluted areas of the country. Madison County is home to two Superfund sites and massive factories owned by U.S. Steel and ConocoPhillips. The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued a report stating that the county's air is the second worst in the country (behind only Los Angeles) and contains high levels of 80 different cancer-causing chemicals.

"[The situation in Venice] is basically Erin Brockovich multiplied twenty times for each individual," says Dr. Joseph Guth, a Virginia-based toxicologist frequently tapped by attorneys as a legal expert in cases involving radiation and chemical exposure. "With Erin Brockovich, you were talking one or two different chemicals with a specific cause-and-effect relationship. In this case, there are literally hundreds."

What's more, every private owner of the Venice factory — from Dow to Spectrulite — used hazardous materials other than radioactive elements in the manufacturing process. EPA records show that in 2008 the current occupant, another metal manufacturer called Magnesium Elektron North America, released 992 pounds of chemical waste into the air. [Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]

"It's not just radiation that should be keyed in on," Ratliff says. "It should also be beryllium and other heavy toxins they use to make metals harder. With a lot of respiratory problems people have, there could be a link to that smoke in the metal-making process."

Tim Runyon, a supervisor with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency's Division of Nuclear Safety, says there's good reason to be suspicious.

"It's not an outrageous leap," Runyon says. "When you live next door to an industrial site and you know that they've produced materials that, in their pure forms and high concentrations, are considered to be hazardous, it's only natural for people to believe that if there have been unexplained health problems, that could possibly be the cause of them."

But the fact remains that in order to win any type of legal case, the residents must not only prove that hazardous materials were present, but that those substances can be traced back to specific illnesses within the community.

The Concerned Citizens group is pinning its hopes on the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. They have petitioned the agency to perform a community health assessment in Venice.

Lisa Briseño, a spokeswoman for ATSDR, confirms that the agency has received the group's petition and is now gathering information before deciding whether to proceed.

Ketna Mistry, a physician with ATSDR, says the odds of linking the factory to the illnesses in the community are slim. "By the time these people get to be adults there are economic, sociological factors — alcohol use, drugs — all sorts of factors that would make it very, very complicated to make any association from a certain compound to a health effect."

Another potential roadblock is a lack of comprehensive health records. Madison County didn't have a public-health department until 1996, and Illinois state records tracking illnesses such as cancer and lung disease only date back to 1986.

Says Dr. Guth: "There's plenty of brush for the people on the defense part of this equation to hide behind. It's not a bad assumption that this factory made these people sick. It just won't rise to the level of proof in the courtroom."

Ratliff, though, says he's fine with losing a legal battle, just so long as he ends up with answers. "The goal is to find out if something is causing people to be sick," he says. "If it's not, it's not. That's why I want the actual documents and reading in the experts' hands. I just want to know."

As for Burgan, he says he has no intention of clearing off the dining-room table and surrendering to the corporations he believes are responsible for ruining his life.

"Sometimes you can't choose your fate. This is mine," he says. "There's no one else looking into this. No one else knows about it. No one else has these documents. I didn't want to do this. I just wanted to work at a factory like my father."

Correction published 1/26/10: The original version of this story erroneously stated that the Magnesium Elektron North America factory in Venice, Illinois, “releases thousands of pounds of barium, chromium and other compounds into the air each year.” According to EPA records, since 2003 the factory released into the air an aggregate total of less than 1,000 pounds of all chemical compounds (barium, zinc, manganese, etc.), none of which was chromium. The factory disposes of the majority of chemical waste via off-site transfers. The above version reflects this correction.

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