Environmental Racism: Warning Signs Belatedly Placed at Oak Ridge's East Fork Poplar Creek, Thirty (30) Years After Mercury Pollution Began from Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant
Unlined S-3 Ponds Contained What Tennessee Regulators Called "A Witches' Brew" of Poisons
Oak Ridge Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant Today (a/k/a "Y-12 National Security Complex), Looking Much Cleaner After Billions of Dollars of Environmental Cleanup
Radionuclides dumped in groundwater at Oak Ridge nuclear weapons plants
It was 28 years ago today (May 17, 1983) when the United States Department of Energy Oak Ridge Operations Office press detail called our Appalachian Observer weekly newspaper to ask me to send someone to Oak Ridge to pick up some documents we’d requested 182 days earlier under the Freedom of Information Act.
In response to our October 1982 FOIA request, the DOE declassified the fact that the Atomic Energy Commission, its predecessor, and Union Carbide Nuclear Division “lost” 4.2 million pounds of mercury into creeks, groundwater and workers’ lungs and brains. We have since learned this was 10% of the mercury in Oak Ridge, used at the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant in the manufacture of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).
According to the National Archives, this information was even kept from President Jimmy Carter when it was stamped “business confidential: in 1977 by Union Carbide and the Department of Energy.
The declassification rocked the world of the Oak Ridge oligarchy of atomic blunderers. Who were they? Mendacious mediocrities and lugubrious authoritarian goobers – scientists, engineers and bureaucrats who exemplified the “banality of evill” that Hannah Arendt wrote about the Adolf Eichman trial for war crimes.
What can you say about a small group of secretive men, people who put their own children in harm’s way with rampant pollution from mercury, radionuclides and other toxicants into creeks where children played, swam and caught fish and turtles?
At hearings chaired by then-Rep. Al Gore, Jr., DOE and Union Carbide, Gore swore in all the witnesses, at my request (and that of Anderson County Attorney David A. Stuart), in hopes of filing a sworn public nuisance suit. I was the only witness to call for criminal prosecution.
Some of the perpetrators briefly feared they would go to federal prison for their environmental crimes – no one ever spent a day in jail for their “crimes against nature” and against Oak Ridge employees.
Upon seeing the news coverage on the front pages of newspapers around the Nation (and all over the world), I was humbled, feeling love and gratitude for the many mentors who taught me well – people who taught me not to take no for an answer, taught me to be a “pest who never rests.”
I recalled the words of the Bhagavad Gita, quoted by scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer when the first nuclear weapons was exploded in New Mexico: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”
The sleepy, corrupt small town world of Oak Ridge, Tennessee would never be the same again. As Al Gore has written, in Earth in the Balance, America is not unlike a "dysfunctional family" in dealing with environmental problems (not talking about them). In Oak Ridge, fear of prison kept workers from speaking the truth about environmental crimes.
Today, Oak Ridge has a thriving economy, thanks to the ongoing environmental cleanup. DOE started its Environmental Safety and Health program in response to the declassification. Billions of dollars have been spent on cleanup at DOE sites in eleven states.
Like Gettysburg, Oak Ridge and other nuclear weapons plant sites have earned a place of honor for the sacrifices of the people who helped win our wars. Unlike Gettysburg and other battles, the dead, sick and maimed at nuclear weapons plant sites went without honor for years. That’s changing.
My May 2000 Oak Ridger column is reprinted below.
Oak Ridger Guest Column: Persistence may pay off for sick workers
Story last updated at 3:34 p.m. on Monday, May 29, 2000
Guest Column: Persistence may pay off for sick workers
On this day in American history (May 17): In 1946, President Harry Truman seized control of America's railroads.
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court ordered American schools desegregated, in Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1973, the U.S. Senate began its Watergate investigation.
In 1983, in response to a November 1982 Appalachian Observer newspaper declassification request, the DOE Oak Ridge Operations office admitted it "lost," emitted and dumped 2.4 million pounds of mercury in Oak Ridge.
The DOE ORO telephone call came at about noon on our weekly deadline day, requesting I send someone to DOE HQ in Oak Ridge to pick up a FOIA response.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Some said that I was "crazy" and "out to destroy Oak Ridge" for seeking this information, and that no one would care. They were wrong. Others in Oak Ridge shared information confidentially, and encouraged me to seek the truth.
DOE now admits that there were 4.2 million pounds of mercury "lost."
Since 1983, DOE has spent some $4.5 billion on "cleanup" in Oak Ridge, with no end in sight. DOE and its allies euchred ATSDR into changing the cleanup standard for mercury, and serious problems remain as a result.
On May 17, 1983, few of us envisioned just how widespread DOE and contractor misconduct had been, or the vast numbers of people affected by it. While I predicted "a potential environmental health disaster" in AO editorials, and was churlishly chided by DOE for "alarmist language," the simple truth is that I did not then imagine just how big that DOE "environmental health disaster" might become.
Seventeen years later, our leaders need the steely determination of Harry Truman, Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall and Sam Ervin.
Seventeen years later, that 26-year-old Appalachian Observer newspaper editor is a public interest lawyer representing whistleblowers and other DOE victims. He is still hated by DOE Oak Ridge managers. He is still seeking the truth. I am now honored to have my views shared by DOE's victims -- workers and residents from across the country, with an apology by the Secretary of Energy and bipartisan compensation legislation supported by editorial writers and Congressmen. This is a very special day, with meaningful legislation possible, if not this year, then next year.
The lesson of history: Never give up. Individual efforts can change history.
See, e.g., Jimmy Breslin's book on Watergate, "How the Good Guys Finally Won."
In tribute to all of the DOE/AEC victims whose sacrifice made victory in the Cold War possible, Congress should pass full and fair compensation legislation for all of DOE's Cold War radiation and toxicant victims, whether babies with genetic damage, Downwinders/residents, plant workers, Atomic Veterans or Gulf War veterans.
Our struggle is righteous and it can and should be won. The bill should not be limited only to plant workers, but should include family members and residents poisoned by DOE or suffering genetic abnormalities.
Rep. Zach Wamp pressed the need for compensating residents at the April 12 press conference held by Secretary Richardson, televised by C-SPAN: Secretary Richardson only frowned at these words.
In my humble opinion, if Congress has to kill a bad bill now to pass a good bill later, then so be it. DOE should not control compensation of its own victims, or pick and choose which victims it will compensate. This is a blatant conflict of interest.
Longtime Oak Ridge lawyer Gene Joyce made excellent suggestions on enacting compensation legislation in his column, and I salute him.
If hindsight is 20/20, it is only reasonable that DOE should not be allowed to rush things so as to make the nuclear weapons compensation bill a joke, covering only a few people, holding out cash over their heads and then dashing peoples' hopes and prayers in the details. What do you think?
For more information online, visit www.downwinders.org/victims.html
Edward A. Slavin Jr. [was] an attorney who represents Oak Ridge whistle-blowers and sick workers. He lives in St. Augustine, Fla., and can be reached by writing him at P.O. Box 3084, St. Augustine, FL 32085-3084 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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