In secret, behind locked gates, our Nation's Oldest City dumped a landfill in a lake (Old City Reservoir), while emitting sewage in our rivers and salt marsh. Organized citizens exposed and defeated pollution, racism and cronyism. We elected a new Mayor. We're transforming our City -- advanced citizenship. Ask questions. Make disclosures. Demand answers. Be involved. Expect democracy. Report and expose corruption. Smile! Help enact a St. Augustine National Park and Seashore. We shall overcome!
Wednesday, May 17, 2023
May 17, 1983: World's Largest Mercury Pollution Event Declassified by U.S. Department of Energy in Oak Ridge, Tennessee
Oak Ridge mercury declassification 40th anniversary (4100+ words). (Copyright 1983-2023 Ed Slavin All Rights Reserved)
"Joy cometh in the morning," the scripture says. Forty years ago, in the morning of May 17, 1983, I got a phone call inviting me to send someone to the Federal Building in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to pick up some documents in response to our small weekly newspaper's Freedom of Information Act request. The release of those documents helped transform the Oak Ridge Oligarchy of Atomic Blunderers, and all who would misuse classification stamps to hide the truth from the American people.
I never took chemistry in college, though earning a B.S.F.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University (the same degree as President Clinton), sometimes called "bullshit for sure." The degree was once called "Safe from Science."
In 1982, reading government environmental documents in a windowless room the bowels of the Oak Ridge Federal Building, I read about the high levels of "Hg" in local waterways. Being unencumbered by a college chemistry education, I did not remember what "Hg" was, so I called and asked District Attorney General James Nelson Ramsey, my friend and mentor, who lived in Oak Ridge since the age of one, and whose late father was a chemist and patentee who worked on the Manhattan Project.
"Mercury," General Ramsey said.
I replied, "Boy, General, y'all sure have a lot of it in the creeks around here!"
Mercury is a neurotoxin, known to be poisonous since ancient Roman times.
The biggest mercury pollution event in world history was a federally-directed, federally-concealed environmental crime, committed in secret by Union Carbide Corporation Nuclear Division in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
The pollution poisoned the land, creeks, groundwater and nuclear plant workers' lungs and brains and lives.
Oak Ridge mercury pollution was made possible by federal national security secrecy paranoia, federal funds, federal impunity, federal immunity, and lousy louche lax oversight by Congress and federal agencies. The Soviets used mercury in their nuclear weapons plants before Americans did -- our goverment and Union Carbide were protecting organizational and individual reputations, not protecting national security, by keeping use of mercury secret.
In 1983, members of Congress wanted answers, or at least then-Rep. Al Gore and some others acted like they did. But they choked and did not complete the job.
In Clinton, Tennessee, the School Board's federal grants coordinator, Dr. W. Eugene Collins, Ph.D. called me "the mercury kid" for ferreting out the fact of this pollution, forcing DOE to release information by requesting declassification, after somnambulistic reporters from three daily newspapers, and government employees with the State of Tennessee, took "classified" as if it were an immutable fact.
From Georgetown courses, I knew there were declassification procedures, so I invoked them, without knowing the details -- I knew we wanted the documents, and we got 'em.
Newspapers around our Nation and all over the world reported the then newly "declassified" Oak Ridge Y-12 Nuclear Weapon Plant pollution, including the largest mercury pollution event in world history. Elliott Marshall's July 8, 1983 article from SCIENCE Magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) reported the crime, as did national newspapers.
Anderson County District Attorney General James Nelson Ramsey recommended me for a Pulitzer Prize for our Appalachian Observer's investigative reporting winning the mercury declassification.
I was a beardless youth of 26, and I was then (as I am now) unencumbered by ever taking journalism course. But I had a nose for news, and worked to expose the corrupt political culture of Clinton and Oak Ridge. Our targets included powerful, undertaxed coal and land companies and a corpulent School Superintendent whose reign of error ended after voters approved a referendum for electing the Superintendent.
We also exposed Sheriff Dennis Owen Trotter, twice the Tennessee Sheriff of the Year, a putative Democrat, who was investigated for drug conspiracy and bribery and went to federal prison for it.
Sheriff Trotter told me that I was "the most dangerous reporter" he "ever met" in his entire life, once offering $100 for one of his deputies to beat me up (an offer none accepted).
The morning of my first law school exam in Memphis (Torts), Sheriff Trotter had me served with a $1 million libel lawsuit. The bail bondsmen in cahoots with Trotter claimed I defamed them.
But it it was Sheriff Trotter and his co-felons who ended paying me, with the bail bondsman I investigated admitting they paid Sheriff Dennis Owen Trotter $10,633.50 in bribes (10% of the income they got from having 87% of the bail bonding business in Anderson County Jail in January to May, 1983.
Trotter went to federal prison for four years, one of nine Tennessee Sheriffs convicted of federal drug conspiracy crimes ). When he got out, we met in federal court in Memphis, where we settled the civil case (I agreed never to contact Trotter again, insisting through learned counsel, lawyer Hayden Lait, that the no-contact agreement be mutual, and "include bullets.")
40 years ago, on July 11. 1983, shortly after lunch, I was testifying under oath about Y-12 nuclear weapons plant mercury pollution before an historic Congressional hearing, co-chaired by two (2) Tennessee members of the U.S. Congress, in the packed Oak Ridge Museum of Atomic Energy auditorium, on stage, before Tennessee Democratic Congress members Albert Gore, Jr., and Marilyn Lloyd, who were co-chairing meetings of their two House of Representatives Science and Technology subcommittees, one on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Gore and the one on Energy Research and Development, chaired by, Marilyn Lloyd (D-Chattanooga).
For decades, Oak Ridge nuclear weapons plant workers were forbidden to talk about health problems, poisons including mercury were promiscuously consumed and recklessly emitted, a scientist was fired for taking "unauthorized soil samples" and asking questions about mercury. The 1977 Elwood mercury inventory report was stamped "Business Confidential" by Union Carbide. Feckless federal managers honored Union Carbide's demand for secrecy.
That's the way it was, until our tiny tabloid Appalachian Observer weekly newspaper's November 1982 FOIA and declassification request was granted by DOE on May 17, 1983, some 182 days after we asked for it. (After its massive illegal pollution was exposed by DoE document releases to us, Union Carbide did not rebid for the Oak Ridge contracts and was later perpetrator of tens of thousands of poisoning deaths and injuries in Bhopal, India).
Six days after the declassification, DOE did a dog-and-pony show before the Oak Ridge City Council.
At the Oak Ridge City Council, I happily cross-examined DOE and Union Carbide managers for some twenty minutes, hammering at their deception. I asked whether it would be considered "an act of war" if the Soviet Union dumped millions of pounds of mercury over Oak Ridge.
I asked if DOE planned to apologize, and DOE said no; I responded, borrowing a line from the book and movie, Love Story: "Does being DOE mean never having to say you're sorry?"
Chairman Gore, later Vice President, honored our request to his superlative staffer, Steve Owens to require sworn testimony on Oak Ridge pollution. Then-Rep. Gore swore in all the witnesses, conducting an investigative hearing -- first time ever in the entire history of U.S. nuclear weapons, where secret meetings were held on a small secure room in the fourth floor of the Capitol .before the Joint Commission on Atomic Energy, which protected DOE and the Atomic Energy Commission from public scrutiny.
During a recess in the July 11, 1983 Gore hearing, I conferred on the steps of the Museum with both of the two local DAs and both of the two local County Attorneys, whose respective territories embraced Oak Ridge. They humbly called themselves "the Gang of Four" and they contemplated filing a sworn, certified public nuisance lawsuit in a Tennessee state court. State law nuisance over a nuclear weapons plant -- that was heady stuff, but they were angry at the duplicity and arrogance of what I called "the Oak Ridge Oligarchy of Atomic Blunderers."
But the State Attorney General's office later assured them that the State AG would filing be a federal pollution lawsuit. Thus, the State AG thereby discouraged and halted filing of powerful state court nuisance litigation by our four local elected government lawyers in Anderson and Roane Counties.
The July 11, 1983 hearing began federal investigations of the feculent federal nuclear weapons complex, source or great misery. Years of investigative reporting and activism. nationwide, ultimately resulted in adoption of federal workers compensation legislation in 2000 (the defective Energy Employees Occupational Injuries Compensation Act or EEOICA, which I opposed in detailed written testimony as consisting the toxic, hostile working environment, as lacking in Due Process, with no hearings, no appeals, no discovery or depositions).
More than $12 billion has been disbursed in EEOICA payments to the workers whom Rep. Gore's and Rep. Lloyd's July 11, 1983 hearing all but ignored. (During my testimony, I drew two heated questions from Rep. Lloyd, asking me about my "scientific background," and then asking me to name anyone hurt by the mercury. I replied, "J.C. Wilson Jr.," who suffered from mercury pollution, including constant vomiting and Technicolor hallucinations, as the Knoxville newspapers and Appalachian Observer documented. Rep. Lloyd's rude reply was that Mr. Wilson was "inside the area," as if that were exculpatory.
At my request, the DOE Oak Ridge Operations Manager, Mr. Joe Ben LaGrone graciously expedited release of 30,000 pages of documents on mercury levels in the air at Y-12 buildings 9201-4 and 9201-5, ordering Union Carbide to incur overtime.
Mr. LaGrone began DOE's environmental, safety and health program ex nihilo as a result of the mercury pollution, personally walking the length of East Fork Poplar Creek, observing more than 100 discharge pipes without permits, flowing into what the government and its contractor long called "the industrial ditch."
Thanks to Shirley Harkins with Save Our Cumberland Mountains, who helped me wrestle with six full Xerox boxes of documents, we learned that the mercury levels in air were some 30-60 times the then-prevailing health standard for mercury, with NO respirators, the standard of care identified by the British Journal of Industrial Medicine in 1953 -- the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) subscribed)..
After louche DOE lapdog Marilyn Lloyd left Congress:
DOE named Marilyn Lloyd to the Energy Advisory Board
Lockheed Martin Corporation CEO Norman R. Augustine appointed Marilyn Lloyd to its Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation board, at a time when Lockheed was still the contractor for five DOE plants in three states with 20,000 employees.
ORNL said in a press release, :"Lloyd served 20 years as U.S. Congress representative of people in Tennessee's Third Congressional District. She was chairman of the Energy Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee and moved many landmark bills that helped shape the U.S. energy policy. Lloyd, a Democrat, retired in January 1995."
Lockheed was later cancelled as Oak Ridge Operations contractor due to its environmental ineptitude, as demonstrated to its harsh response to workers concerned about the poisoned workplace.
Was Lockheed's noncompliance largely due to DOE's forcing its predecessor, Martin Marietta, to retain all but twelve (12) of 4000 maladroit secretive Union Carbide managers at five plants in three states employing 20,000 people?
No one ever went to prison or jail for even a day for putting 4.2 million pounds of mercury into local creeks and groundwater, and into workers’ lungs and brains, without signs, fences, respirators, warnings or basic protections. Half the free world’s mercury was in Oak Ridge: Union Carbide and the Atomic Energy Commission and successor agencies “LOST” 10% OF IT.
Years after the hearings and billions were spent on cleanup, mercury levels are rising.
Thanks to activists and former U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), DOE is spending another $125 million to keep mercury from entering East Fork Poplar Creek, which is still being contaminated daily by mercury that is still leaching out from the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant.
"It is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error." Those are the words of United States Supreme Court Justice Robert Houghwot Jackson, America's prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials.
As I wrote in the St. Augustine Record on November 8, 2014:
On Nov. 21, 1974, our United States Senate enacted the Freedom of Information Act, joining the House in voting to override a veto by President Gerald Ford (whose veto was pushed on him by then-DOJ lawyer, Antonin Scalia, and White House aides Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who wanted government to remain secretive).
I was 17, a “hick from the sticks” — first-semester Georgetown University freshman, an intern known for my walking/working speed in Senator Ted Kennedy’s office as “Fast Eddie.” I carried three stacks of Senator Kennedy’s legal-sized, stapled, freshly-mimeographed press release to three Senate press galleries, cheering the veto override and enactment of the Freedom of Information Act.
I read it on the Senate/Capitol subway, promising transparency. I walked up a marble staircase, past a gigantic painting of Lincoln with his cabinet, signing the Emancipation Proclamation. My heart leaped with joy.
Eight years later, as the fledgling Appalachian Observer tabloid's first editor, I used FOIA to ask for government data on mercury pollution; a long kept secret by Union Carbide’s Y-12 nuclear bomb builders in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. We won, and on May 17, 1983, the largest mercury pollution event in world history was declassified — 4.2 million pounds of mercury emitted into the environment and workers’ lungs and brains, which continues leaking into creeks and groundwater today (subject of a new $125 million mercury cleanup plant advocated by Senator Lamar Alexander).
Nuclear weapons plants cleanup may be achieved by circa 2057, by my 100th birthday, at a cost that may top $300 billion.
Nearly 49 years after FOIA, Americans work to hold our governments accountable, seeking to breathe life into open records laws.
As Ben Franklin said in Philadelphia after our Constitutional Convention in 1787, we have “a republic, if [we] can keep it.” Will we?
We Americans ended slavery, but can we ever stop being slaves to secrecy?
We Americans eradicated smallpox and polio, but can we ever eradicate political corruption?
We must make our governments more transparent.
… Let us have a government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Lincoln promised at Gettysburg.
Let us have what [Mayor] Nancy Shaver calls a “no surprises” government. Now.
In 1977, I was a 20 year old staffer for Senator Jim Sasser, assigned to cover as a legislative research assistant the creation of the Department of Energy under President Carter, among other issues. We had no idea at that time what DOE had done to Tennesseans and other Americans. No one but DOE knew that.
Six years after that, and less than nine years after carrying Ted Kennedy's FOIA press release to the Senate press galleries, the mercury losses in Oak Ridge were declassified on May 17, 1983, at request of Appalachian Observer Publisher Ernest F. Phillips and me, the editor.
The Al Gore hearing followed, like a bird on a wagon. People were outraged.
But at the hearing, I was the only witness to call for criminal prosecution.
No one was ever prosecuted.
But Oak Ridge would never be the same again.
The DOE complex began a slow-walked "culture change," and was finally forced to focus on whistleblower protection, environment, safety and health. The multi-billion dollar cleanup of DOE sites continues, nationwide.
Thanks to the persistence of former Senator and Governor Lamar Alexander (R), the mercury in Oak Ridge is still being cleaned up, with a new processing building to remove mercury from water before it flows downstream, into the East Fork Poplar Creek and the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers. Contaminated building buildings are being demolished.
All witnesses were sworn in at the request of our elected Anderson County Attorney David A. Stuart and me (Mr. Stuart, then 27, was years later my co-counsel in several landmark whistleblower cases. With DA Jim Ramsey, Mr,. Stuart was a member of the group who humorously referred to themselves as "the Gang of Four" -- two District Attorneys General and two County Attorneys acting as government watchdogs, contemplating jointly filing a sworn public nuisance complaint against DOE and Union Carbide under Tennessee nuisance law. Alas, the State Attorney General and the Legal Environmental Assistance Counsel filed first, and the "Gang of Four" did not go ahead with their inchoate plans).
Other disclosures about DOE sites 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, Ph.D. 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 sacrifice.”
DOE’s American victims must be compensated fully, fairly and swiftly. It may be cleaned up by the year 2047, at which time I will be 90 years young.
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 said to have been a classified secret (kept even from President Jimmy Carter and President Reagan according to their Presidential libraries). In reality, the only "classification" was Union Carbide's "business confidential" stamp, but so cowed and cowardly was our nuclear weapons industrial technostructure that Union Carbide was giving our government orders.
Secretary of Energy Donald Paul Hodel hornswoggled Joe Ben LaGrone into leaving DoE San Francisco Operations and moving his family to Oak Ridge by stating there were mere "management problems," never disclosing my pending mercury FOIA declassification request. Mr. La Grone personally walked East Fork Poplar Creek and personally counted some 100 pollution discharge pipes, none with federal permits.
Born in 1899, scion of an old Tennessee political family, appointed to the U.S. District Court by President Harry Truman, Eastern District Chief Judge Robert Love Taylor ruled against DOE in the case of Legal Environentsl Associations Foundation v. Hodel,holding that there was no "national security" exemption from anti-pollution laws. DOE was gobsmacked. Nuclear weapons contractors seethed.
Gore's hearing helped give the government a spinal implant.
The hearing and Judge Taylor's ruling were victories, thanks to fine work by Gary Davis and Natural Resources Defense Council lawyers on, the landmark case applying environmental laws applying to lawbreaking feculent federal bomb factories in Oak Ridge.
But to this day, 40 years later, I wish that Al Gore had done his job better.
Al Gore needed to do more than hold one (1) hearing -- no further hearings ever investigated the Environmental Justice issues I raised (moving an entire segregated African-American community next to the creek).
Al Gore was seemingly raised to be President, the son of courageous Democratic. populist U.S. Senator Albert Gore, Sr. (He and then-Senator Kefauver joined with Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley and Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson) as refusing to sign the Southern Manifesto. Good man, son of a statesman.
Al Gore, Jr., held some 1200 town hall meetings in Tennessee as Congressman (1977-1985) and Senator (1985-1992). Sadly, Al Gore seemed distant to Tennesseans as Vice President (1993-2001). There were to be no more town meetings.
If Gore had carried his home state of Tennessee, he could have been President. My reckoning is that Al Gore lost Tennessee in 2000 largely because he lost interest in Tennessee issues like the Oak Ridge worker illnesses exhaustively covered by the Nashville Tennessean. It did not help Gore's Presidential candidacy that his long Secrect Service caravan was obstructing I-40 traffic every Friday afternoon, as Air Force Two landed and he and his entourage drove some 42 miles from the Nashville airport to Carthage, his ancestral home, a joke for Nashville DJs that hurt his support in Democratic Middle Tennessee). (Gore failed to carry either Tennessee or Arkansas in 2000, and was found to have lost to Texas Governor George W. Bush by 537 votes in Florida.
The month after Gore's July 11, 1983 mercury hearing, I went on to start Memphis State University Law School, clerked for Memphis labor attorney, and then went on to 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.
So today, older, grayer (and disbarred after zealous representation of workers in whistleblower cases), I'm contemplating Al Gore's well-meaning but flawed stab at Congressional oversight, with little or no followup after initial headlines, and doing a wonderful job for a proud shining hearing 40 years ago July 11, touching on what Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical, Laudato Si,about humankind turning this frail planet into "a pile of filth."
On balance, Gore's hearing on July 11, 1983 was a great day in American history. If Hollywood made a film and asked about music, I would suggest, "The times they are a-changin," or else "the world stood upside down" (played at Yorktown by our fledgling U.S. Army when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington).