Friday, February 05, 2021

February 5, 1992

On February 5, 1992, I was up early in the Northeast Washington, D.C. arctic cold.  I ducked down an. alley adjoining Brian's apartment, walked into a 7-Eleven and bought The New York Times.  I observed an empty white Econoline van in the alley, chuckling to myself.  The Department of Energy's TSCM vans had made their appearance in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington, and other DoE sites where workers were spied on.  But sometimes, a white van is simply a white van .

On this day in 1992, 29 years ago, The New York Times' reporter Matthew L. Wald broke the story of my heroic environmental and nuclear whistleblower client, Charles D. "Bud" Varnadore, of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Thanks to Bud, and Matt, and to my co-counsel and numerous other ethical whistleblowers, three nuclear weapons plants at Oak Ridge, Tennessee will never be the same again.  

Thank God.  

Mr. Varnadore was assigned a desk three feet from radioactive waste barrels, with Oak Ridge National Laboratory Ph.D. WILBUR DOTREY SHULTS, Analytical Chemistry Division Director, well knowing Bud was a cancer patient with a suppressed immune system.  SHULTS said in deposition, "I always heard that radiation nis good for cancer patients."  He later assigned Bud to a desk in a room contaminated with mercury and other leaking chemicals. 

Nuclear weapons facilities had long suppressed worker concerns with sadistic techniques that shock the conscience. Blake would have called them "dark Satanic mills."  I shudder to think of them.  

The end of the Cold War and the enactment of  environmental whistleblower laws empowered Bud, encouraged by an uppity Yankee, a law review reject, a 1986 Memphis State law grad who had clerked for Nahum Litt, the U.S. Department of Labor Chief Administrative Law Judge, to help put fear on trial.

The transformative case of Varnadore v. Oak Ridge National Laboratory helped transform a peculiar and dysfunctional institution, one that I first got to know as Appalachian Observer Editor, investigating toxic pollution by Union Carbide at the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant, including the largest mercury pollution event in world history (4.2 million pounds emitted into creeks and groundwater and workers' lungs and brains without any protection for anyone).

Here is that 1992 story, and Bud's 2013 NewYork Times obituary.  Bud appeared on a four minute "Eye on America" segment on CBS Evening News with Dan Rather on March 11, 1992, my mom's birthday.  Mr. Rather later called Bud, a year later, just to check and see how he was doing.

Mr. Vanadore, and his wife Fran, stood up to oppression and helped transform Oak Ridge.


Photo credit: Ken Murray, The New York Times, 1992

Charles D. Varnadore at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1992.CreditKen

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