July 11, 1983 was a fun day in American history. If Hollywood made a film and asked about music, I would suggest, "The times they are a-changin," or "the world stood upside down" (played when Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington).
35 years ago this afternoon, shortly after lunch, I was in the Oak Ridge Museum of Atomic Energy auditorium, on stage, before Albert Gore, Jr., then-Congressman, and hearing of two House of Representatives Science and Technology subcommittees, one on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Gore and his estimable execrable energy-industry dominated colleague, Marilyn Lloyd (D-Chattanooga)
Workers were forbidden to talk about health problems, mercury was promiscuously consumed and recklessly emitted, a scientist was fired for taking "unauthorized soil samples" and asking questions, and the 1977 Elwood inventory report was stamped "Business confidential" by Union Carbide (which did not rebid for the Oak Ridge contracts and was later perpetrator of tens of thousands of poisoning deaths and injuries in Bhopal, India).
That's the way it was, until our tiny Appalachian Observer weekly newspaper's November 1982 FOIA and declassification request was granted by DOE on May 17, 1983, 182 days after we asked for it.
The Al Gore hearing followed.
I was the only witness to call for criminal prosecution.
Other disclosures around the country, sought by activists from all walks of life, have shown the Nation a picture of sublime ugliness: the Cold War took tens of thousands of Americans as unwilling victims, without informed consent. Now we know all too well that our Nation faces a moral crisis involving DOE, truly the “moral equivalent of war,” one that will test who we are as a people.
As Dr. Susan Arnold Kaplan wrote in 2005:
The public first learned of DOE environmental releases in 1983 when the agency announced the release of mercury from the Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The announcement, which was prompted by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Ed Slavin,1 marked the beginning of DOE’s Environmental, Safety, and Health (ES&H) projects nationwide.2
Former Department of Energy Oak Ridge Operations Manager Joe Ben LaGrone told me in a 2012 telephone conversation after I read his oral history interview that I was indeed "the crowbar" who got the mercury pollution declassified and forced action. Mr. LaGrone stated that Department of Energy officials sent him to Oak Ridge the new Manager without telling them of the expected declassification.
Not only that, but the Presidential libraries of President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan show that two Presidents were never briefed on the scandal.
In 2014, former Department of Energy Deputy Assistant Secretaryb Robert Alvarez wrote of Y-12:
The mercury threat. Activities at Y-12 have produced multiple environmental challenges; perhaps the largest is mercury pollution.
During the crash program to build thermonuclear weapons in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, Y-12 purchased about 24 million pounds of mercury to purify lithium. Of that amount, about 10 percent (2.4 million pounds) was released into the environment or could not be accounted for inside buildings. To put the problem in perspective, Y-12 mercury losses are about eight times the annual mercury emissions estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency for the entire United States during the years 1994 and 1995.
Despite the well-recognized hazards of mercury, a neurological poison, workers were not provided with adequate protection from it. People living nearby, including hundreds of school children, were exposed for years to an estimated 73,000 pounds of mercury released to the air. In 2012, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded that “elemental mercury carried from the Y-12 plant by workers into their homes could potentially have harmed their families (especially young children).” A rough measure of harm to workers can be found in compensation statistics maintained by the Department of Labor. Nearly 9,000 Y-12 workers have received some $417 million for exposure to non-radioactive substances.
The Upper East Fork Poplar Creek and Bear Creek continuously transport about 500 pounds of mercury from heavily contaminated soil on the site to downstream areas. The contaminated creeks then feed into the lower Watts Bar reservoir of the Tennessee River and the Clinch River, where tens of tons of mercury have accumulated in sediments. In 2002, nearly 40 percent of the anglers using the Watts Bar Reservoir continued to eat mercury-contaminated fish, despite a public ban on consumption. African-Americans were the least aware of the ban and were the most vulnerable to potential harm.
After recognizing the magnitude of the mercury problem at least 35 years ago, the Energy Department is just beginning to construct a water treatment plant to remove mercury from the contaminated creeks and to reduce offsite mercury run-off. The total cost of mercury cleanup at Y-12 has not been determined. However, it may rival the cleanup costs of profoundly contaminated areas such as the Hanford Site in southeastern Washington state.
The DOE Nuclear Weapons complex, to paraphrase Lincoln, is guilty of “idolatry that practices human sacrifices.”
Cleanup of the entire nuclear weapons complex may eventually be achieved for as little as $400 billion. In the immortal words of the late Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen (R-Ill.), "A billion dollars here, a billion dollars there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money."
I was honored to testify before then-Rep. Al Gore at his July 11, 1983 hearing on the Oak Ridge mercury pollution crisis, which was a classified secret (kept even from President Jimmy Carter and President Reagan according to their Presidential libraries). (I was a deeply closeted, self-denying Gay man of 24: more here).
The month after the hearing, I went on to Memphis State University Law School, and in starting in 1986, clerkships with Judges Charles P. Rippey and Chief Judge Nahum Litt at the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Administrative Law Judges, work at the AFL-CIO Occupational Health Legal Rights Foundation and Government Accountability Project and private practice, including Oak Ridge matters.
Today, I am waiting for the Levin College of Law University of Florida to respond re: my five (5) applications to its Environmental and Land Use Planning Law (ELUPL) LL.M. program. I have been filed age, disability and retaliation complaints against the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida, which refuses to meet or interview me. In retaliation, an Assistant Vice President at the University of Florida e-mailed PDF copies of my 52 letters of recommendation to some two dozen people outside the University, including the New York Times, local newspapers, et al. This massive distribution of my educational records by UF (15.7 MB worth) would appear to violate federal protections for student and applicant privacy.
I await an explanation, and my admission to UF's high-calibre environmental law graduate program.
We had a mediation before a Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service mediator on August 25, 2014; our Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service mediator and I were in the conference room at the City Financial Services Building. UF Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Alison Flournoy and a UF attorney were in Gainesville; they literally phoned it in.
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights has my age, disability and retaliation complaint under review.
In the immortal words of the soccer cheer invented by an African-American Naval Academy former midshipman, a Memphis law graduate: "I believe that we will win!"
Pope Francis' "Laudato si" encyclical expresses the same thoughts I had 35 years ago today, about humankind turning this frail planet into "a pile of filth."
With your help, "We SHALL overcome!