Mum’s The Word

With the birth of the Cold War at the end of World War II fueling a nuclear arms and energy race with the Soviet Union, the U.S. government turned to the private sector for help with its atomic energy program—one of its earliest attempts at a public-private partnership. The initiative was spearheaded by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), created in 1946 to “manage the development, use and control of atomic (nuclear) energy for military and civilian applications,” according to its successor, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In 1952, the AEC entered into a contract known as 1293 with Sylvania Electric Products in Hicksville to produce nuclear fuel rods and elements; there was also commercial work being performed at the site. Historically, the complex consisted of three main buildings and 12 support structures, according to state and federal environmental remediation plans and court filings—all demolished prior to 1970 but for a portion of the present-day 70 building. Atomic operations ceased at the site in 1967.

Sylvania merged with the GTE around 1959, and GTE merged with Verizon in 2000—the latter thus inheriting successor liability for the site’s nuclear past.

MDI, now Hudson News, then one of the largest magazine and book distributors in the Northeast, moved onto the site around 1990 before relocating to Farmingdale in 2002.

Neville worked as a night and delivery foreman, among other positions there, with roughly 100 others in the company’s large warehouse in the 100 building. Depascale, among duties, was a driver and warehouseman.

Whenever it would rain, the parking lot and the warehouse would flood—the workers wading through the smelly stew to rescue stacks of products or trying to squeegee it into overwhelmed drains that spouted like geysers.

Then, there was the dust.

“It was all over the covers of the magazines, all over the plastic, and people kept asking what it was, because it looked like dust,” says Linda Miranda, a longtime MDI employee who worked as a merchandiser in the warehouse.

“It was so bad that they had to wear masks. And nobody would give anybody an answer.”

The 56-year-old didn’t know about much of the details of the site’s past until I informed her. She has lung and brain cancer, and says there’s no question it came from working at that site.

“I had partial lung removal,” says the Levittown resident. “And then I had a piece of it that went into my brain, so I had radiation… I never had a problem [before working there].”

Miranda expressed concern for park-goers and children at Nassau’s Cantiague Park, believing there should be warnings posted there to inform the public. It was a sentiment echoed by many interviewed for this story.

“There should be signs, but they’re not going to do that, because they don’t want to alarm the public,” she says. “Just like MDI. They never told us, because they didn’t want us to know. Because they didn’t want to be where they are now, what, 14 years later? That so many people have problems? It’s all about money.”

Another former MDI employee, Larry Moore, also has cancer, and two separate types: squamous cell carcinoma in situ of his right vocal chord and Stage Four Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a blood cancer. He worked at the site even before the company moved in, when Harbor Distributor was located there.

The throat cancer he says could be attributed to smoking, but he believes it was brewing his daily coffee with the building’s tap water that spawned the latter.

“Problem is I drank an exorbitant amount of coffee, I actually still do, and I used tap water not knowing what was looming underneath that building at the time,” he says in a raspy voice that he keeps apologizing for. “It was probably two pots of coffee a day.

“At no time we were in that building were we informed,” he continues, later adding that it’s not a matter of “if” the Non-Hodgkins “is going to rear its ugly head,” but “when.”

“It’s there,” he says. “And then chemo is definitely in my future.”

Moore isn’t one to sit around and cry about his situation, however. Despite his ailments, the 55-year-old husband and father holds down two jobs—driving a truck and a limousine—and hasn’t missed a day’s work, even throughout his radiation treatments. Ironically, Moore lives on Hope Place, in Wantagh.

He quotes a scene from 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption to sum up his attitude: “‘You either get busy living or you get busy dying.’”

“I get busy living,” says the former MDI distribution and bookroom manager.

So does Joe McCarthy, another longtime MDI employee that worked at the Hicksville site who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007.

“It was a very aggressive form,” he explains. “It was a very quick thing and it could have been fatal. But thank God, someone upstairs was watching me, I guess.”

McCarthy rattles off a list of names of coworkers he knows who’ve also developed cancers, noting that some have died from their ailments.

That grim reality is not lost on Pasquale “Patsy” Lobosco. Before MDI, he worked for Imperial News, he says, and was eventually put in charge of all the men coming back from their delivery routes at MDI. He says he was stationed at the back of the warehouse “right over the sump pump.”

The father of three suffered a heart attack inside that warehouse, he says, and was later also diagnosed with prostate cancer. Patsy has endless stories about the cast of characters who passed through its doors, adding that despite the deplorable conditions, they all shared a special bond.

“We were like a family,” he says. “We were really tight… We had a family there. I didn’t want to leave.”

“But we didn’t know—you’re an amateur at this stuff—what do you know about diseases?” he asks. “Nobody ever said anything to us. They kept it secret.”

That’s something they’re all infuriated about, including Paul Walters, a former fire chief for East Williston who’s currently a fire communications tech for Nassau County. Walters was a longtime foreman at MDI’s Hicksville site, among other roles, working there from 1991 to 2002, when the company suddenly informed him they were relocating due to the expiration of its lease.

Walters believes his contact with the warehouse floodwaters gave him skin ailments. He is also a prostate cancer survivor. He says he knew from the first day on the job there was something unhealthy about the site.

“I went upstairs to the second floor to get a drink of water out of the water fountain…and there’s this green line running from where the water comes out of the fountain down to the drain,” he says. “It had a metallic taste to it…

So that place was a cesspool to begin with, it was just nobody ever knew it.”

Walters recalls visits around 1995 from county and New York State (NYS) Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) officials conducting air and water samples and inquiring what the company was manufacturing that could be polluting the groundwater. They toured the facility and were shown that they were simply distributing magazines.

He believes MDI’s urgency to relocate in 2002 had little to do with the end of a lease and everything to do with GTE’s looming remediation efforts.

“We were all kept in the dark,” he says.

Yet some higher-ups at MDI, GTE and the state DEC weren’t, documents show.

When pressed by Neville and Depascale’s attorneys during their initial trial about what information GTE shared with “workers and individuals who were still working at the 100 building from 1999 to 2002,” Jean Agostinelli, a director at Verizon, confessed: “GTE did not share that information. It was provided to management.”

Letters dated Nov. 10, 1998 and Oct. 12, 2001 from the DEC to MDI’s VP at the time, Joseph Elm—the October correspondence accompanying an investigative report on the site’s contamination, a “Monitoring Well Work Plan” and a “Radiological Survey Report” from the NYS Department of Health state—explicitly instruct him to inform and share their contents with employees.

The 1998 correspondence refers to an “Investigative Work Plan” for the site that had been sent previously to Elm. The three-page letter then reminds him of its nuclear history, contamination and upcoming investigations into the “extent of chemical and radiological contamination.”

“During a recent radiation survey of your property by GTE Operations Support Incorporated, elevated radiation readings were observed possibly resulting from activities involving material disposed of by Sylvania,” it reads. “Additionally, tetrachloroethene (PCE), a chlorinated solvent used for degreasing, has been detected in groundwater samples.”

“We would appreciate it if you would notify your employees about the availability of the work plan in the public repository and/or make the copy that was sent to you available for your employees to read,” it continues, additionally listing the names of DEC officials—specialists on public health issues and chemical and radiological contamination—“should any of your employees have any questions or comments.”

“Please share this information with your employees or let them know that a copy of these documents is available at the Hicksville Public Library,” echoes the 2001 letter, also including contacts for the agency’s Radiation Section.

Resoundingly, the current and former employees interviewed for this story say they were never informed. And they’re absolutely livid.

Contacted on his cell phone, Elm denies ever seeing the letters.

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Christopher Twarowski is editor in chief of the Long Island Press and its chief of investigations. He holds an M.S. in Journalism with a specialization in investigative journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and was an inaugural member of the school’s Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. He also holds an M.A. from the school with a concentration in business and economics. Twarowski has written for the financial and metro desks of The Washington Post and has earned more than 100 local, state and national journalism awards and accolades.