On this day 39 years ago, I was cross-examining DOE and Union Carbide officials at Oak Ridge, Tennessee City Council about Oak Ridge Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant mercury "losses." Biggest mercury pollution event in world history, long kept secret from even Presidents of the United States.
A tale of two cities -- Oak Ridge, Tennessee and St. Augustine, Florida
Some 39 years ago tonight, on May 23, 1983, I was at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee City Council meeting, cross-examining the new U.S. Department of Energy Oak Ridge Operations Manager JOE BEN LA GRONE about the millions of pounds of lethal mercury that our government and Union Carbide emitted into workers’ lungs and brains, and into the East Fork Poplar Creek and groundwater of the state of Tennessee – a tort, a crime and a sin.
JOE LA GRONE was the new DOE Oak Ridge Operations Manager, sent to “manage” the expected public outrage. In hindsight, he did well, and it’s a shame there was not more outrage upon our learning that the world’s largest mercury pollution event was perpetrated by the U.S. Government and Union Carbide, its longtime mendacious contractor for five nuclear weapons plants in three states, with some 20,000 employees being exposed to what Dr. Michael Bruner called a “witches’ brew” of chemicals. It happened in America, with Americans poisoning Americans in secret, claiming “national security.”
After his presentation, I asked JOE BEN LAGRONE whether, if the Soviet Union had dumped millions of pounds of mercury all over Oak Ridge, that would not be considered an “act of war?”
I also asked LA GRONE, whether “being DOE means never having to say you’re sorry?”
I questioned the ethnocentric nature of Oak Ridge managers, who disdained testing turtle meat, even though low-income African-American residents caught and ate turtles from the East Fork Poplar Creek. I questioned the lack of scientific validity of DOE’s studies. I questioned the conflict of interest nature of self-monitoring of environmental pollution.
In all, at the May 23, 1983 Oak Ridge City Council meeting, I questioned LAGRONE & Co. for about 20 minutes, all of which was transcribed in the minutes of the Oak Ridge City Council. Looking at those minutes today, 39 years later, I am reminded that there is no limit to what one can accomplish if you research, ask questions, and don’t take "no" for an answer.
Before I left for law school, Mr. LaGRONE had ordered Union Carbide to incur overtime, providing me with 30,000 pages of documents establishing that workers in Y-12 buildings 9201-4 and 9201-5 breathed in as much as 30-60 times the then-prevailing health standards for mercury, without respirators.
In the best tradition of diplomats from Thomas Jefferson to Richard Holbrooke, I stood up for our country and her principles against those who violated human rights and devastated our environment. Sorry if that offends.
The City of Oak Ridge, Tennessee will never be the same again thanks to the ethical employees and residents who “blew the whistle” and stood up to authoritarianism and its Environmental Racism. Massive cleanups at all Department of Energy nuclear weapons plants followed, costing hundreds of billions of dollars, creating jobs, saving lives, in eleven states.
Likewise, the City of St. Augustine, Florida and St. Johns County, Florida will never be the same again thanks to the ethical employees and residents who “blew the whistle” on pollution, civil rights violations and mismanagement problems.
There were times in Oak Ridge – and in St. Augustine – when friends warned me that my life was in danger. But as the great American patriot, Nathan Hale, once said, “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country.”
There are still a hostile few who think citizens should be “seen and not heard” and should “know their place.”
I pity them, for they “know not that they know not that they know not,” as my former environmental whistleblower client and mentor the late EPA, HUD and FBI Senior Special Agent Robert E. Tyndall (Retired) put it best.
They are wrong -- this is our place, our town and our time -- we’re going to make this a better place.