Silence Is Golden


Lou Antonelli


Padre Island is pretty this time of year, don't you think? Now that the college kids have gone back home. We pretty much have this stretch of beach to ourselves. Would you like a beer? I didn't think so. You must be a local. Do you live nearby? Don't look at me like that with those pretty brown eyes. Hey, would you like to hear something really crazy. I'm filthy rich, and I can't really tell anyone why. Well, maybe I can tell a pretty girl like you. Sit down, you want to hear an interesting story? OK, here goes.

A year ago I was a wise guy barely a year out of UT-Austin who knew how to brew beer at home and neutralize solvents for Industro-Kleen in Dallas. I was an in-house chemist. Our company's mission was to get the EPA's teeth out of the butts of Dallas-area business owners who hadn't been too careful about what they spilled, sprayed or dumped on or around their employees.

One day my boss appeared in my doorway. "How much experience do you have with NORM?"

"Who is Norm? Is there some asshole here I haven't met yet?"

"That kinda answers my question," he said. "NORM is Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material."

"None" I snapped.

"Well, I'm afraid we may have some type of radiological contamination at the Stonewall Brick plant in Pineville."

"What makes you think I can help?"

"Because I know you're sharp and smart and you like a challenge. This may be one."

Mike Amato was a pro, and dedicated. He got into the industrial hazardous waste clean-up business in the late '70s, right after Three Mile Island, when it took a lot of guts to work with companies instead of picketing them.

Despite my attitude, Mike remained polite and that made me stop and think a second. "Umm, Stonewall Brick in East Texas? I thought that was a normal particulate job? Where do you get radiation?" Mike nodded. "Close the door."

There was no one in the lab room anyway, so I knew what he wanted to say was important. He continued after we both sat down.

"They called us on their own. The EPA hasn't been involved. But it's a wise move, because they have a handful of pretty serious cases."

I must admit I was getting interested, despite the fact my laboratory specialty is volatiles and solvents. Because some energy-gobbling cement plants use recycled solvents to fuel their kilns, I knew a little about the construction material industry.

"There has never been any proven instance of radioactive contamination being found in solvents used as fuel," I said. "And besides, I know that company doesn't use recycled fuel."

"Which is why I am all the more interested in the fact that three workers who have been recently hospitalized--all have come down with cancer."

"OK, now you have my attention. Are they particulate-related respiratory carcinomas?" I felt learned.

Mike leaned forward. "One lung--and one skin and one bone." My mind began to race around for answers--one of which came to me very quickly. "This isn't operational. It's environmental." Mike propped one foot on the front of desk and rocked back slightly in his chair. "I thought you were the guy to ask."

I didn't want to seem too eager, so I cast my best dubious look back at him. "This has to be done on the hush, you understand," he went on. "We've just started our evaluation."

"Mike, old buddy, old chum, old pal--You do know how much trouble we can get into now, don't we?"

"Listen, John, I can say in all honesty I don't know if there is any radiological contamination. I'm running on a hunch. But after all the years I have spent in this clean-up business, I think my instincts are good."

"Didn't you work on that cesium contamination in Brazil, in the early '80s?"

"It was in Rio de Janeiro. Scavengers from the favellas broke apart an imaging machine they found in closed-up medical clinic. Broke open the tube and spilled it all over themselves. Some of them got it on their hands... and in their mouths." He grimaced.

"That must have been ugly."

He waved his fingers in front of his lower jaw. "This guy... his lip..."

"OK, OK, let's not talk about it, I understand."

He leaned forward again. "While I was down there, there was this fellow--just a kid--who had held the tube after it had broken open. He had burns on his wrist and lower arm. The plant manager at the brick factory e-mailed me a photo of the fellow who has skin cancer. He asked me if I recognized the burns on his fingertips. He says the company doctor says he thought they looked like dry ice burns."

"Cree-rist, you think they look like...?"

Mike shook his head slightly and slowly. "John, they look like the same kind of contact radiation burns I saw on that kid in Rio."

"Do you think the plant manager has any idea of what's going on?"

"The sampling crew says he is acting very edgy. I want to go there myself, and I want you to come."

"Well, I did study some nuclear chemistry in college. But I'm hardly an expert."

"I remember how you went around for two days shaking your head after that criticality accident in Japan last year."

"Well, my grandma would have more sense that to put 50 gallons of radioactive slurry into one mixing vat! I couldn't believe that!"

"I really don't know if I am on the right track, but I wish you'd come with me."

I took my jacket off the hook and plunked on my cap. "Let's get going."