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Was Atlantic Station worker radiated?

Attorney requests radiation survey at construction site

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It's been almost a year since Ronald Sack drilled into a barrel containing an unknown liquid 20 feet underground at the Atlantic Station construction site -- the $2 billion mini-city planned for Midtown.

"It was fluorescent green -- stunk real bad," Sack says. "It burned my nose."

He's been sick ever since, starting with severe headaches that began after he dug into the barrel. These days he's losing hair, his teeth are loosening in their sockets. There are several bumps just under the surface of his skin that move around and show up on X-rays.

None of the doctors he went to had a clue as to what exactly was wrong with him -- until last month.

At the time, Sack's tongue was swollen, discolored and lumpy. He went to Dr. David Williams in Marietta and during the examination Williams produced a most unusual instrument -- a Geiger counter.

The Geiger counter was silent over Sack's liver. But when Williams put it over Sack's thyroid gland, it gave a reading of 40 clicks per minute -- about double what are considered safe levels of radioactivity, according to Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of radiological physics in the department of radiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Sternglass has not been hired by Sack, and was contacted independently by Creative Loafing.

As of yet, there's no way to know if Sack was exposed to radiation at the Atlantic Station site, which for decades was an industrial site home to a hazardous waste depot and steel manufacturing company. Sack was fired shortly after he dug up the barrel.

Gerald Pouncey, a partner at Morris, Manning & Martin who has acted as the environmental counsel for Atlantic Station since the inception of the project, says, "The new allegations relating to the Atlantic Station Project are so outlandish that they do not merit a response."

But Sack and his attorney, Marie Harkins, are requesting that the state Environmental Protection Division perform a radiation survey of Atlantic Station to be sure. They've also asked for help in locating the barrel Sack uncovered. Back in November, Brian Brown, safety director for the subcontractor Sack worked for, told Creative Loafing that a hazardous waste response team removed the barrel.

"The thing we want to do first is to find out what the heck is wrong with him," Harkins says. "If we could find out what was in the barrel then we could find out what's wrong with him. If we can't find the barrel, then we'll need a survey of the site."

EPD spokesman Kevin Chambers says, "I don't think there's a precedent for something like this. We would have to evaluate this request and determine if EPD has the expertise and resources to accomplish what [Harkins] requested."

As to when EPD would decide how to handle the radiation survey request, Chambers says, "It's too early to say."

Harkins also asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to conduct a public health assessment at the site. Since she made her request, the agency has gathered records from the EPD and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the Atlantic Station site. A CDC spokeswoman says that a decision on whether to conduct the health assessment will be reached by the end of the month.

In May, Sack and Harkins filed a lawsuit against Atlantic Station alleging the developers "did knowingly, fraudulently and recklessly suppress material facts that Mr. Ron Sack was exposed to contaminated soil and groundwater located at the site."

Harkins dropped the suit March 18 because she says Sack needed a new diagnosis after his symptoms changed.

"They tell me something is wrong with me," Sack says. "But they don't know what because they don't know what's wrong over there" at the Atlantic Station site.

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