Sunday, April 16, 2023

Heroic ORNL scientist Dr. Steven Bradford Gough, Ph.D., R.I.P. (Fredericksburg, VA Free-Lance Star, 2017, NY Times, 1983)

One of my environmental and nuclear whistleblower heroes died in 2007, and I just found out last night.  As JFK said during the Cuban Missile Crisis, "There's always some poor S.O.B who doesn't get the word."

In 1981-2, at UNION CARBIDE's government-owned, contractor-operated Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the career of Dr. Steven B. Gough, a promising young scientist was demolished when he took what were called "unauthorized water and soil samples."  Dr. Gough's lawyer was Oak Ridge civil rights lawyer Dorothy Stulberg.  I first met Dr. Gough at a Congressional investigative hearing, on-stage at the Oak Ridge Museum of Science and Atomic Energy on July 11, 1983; we were both sworn to tell the truth as witnesses before then-Reps. Al Gore, Jr. and Marilyn Lloyd.

While researching an article on the Oak Ridge Y-12 mercury polllution, I found Dr. Gough's obituary, from 2007.  My heart goes out to his family and friends, and my anger persists for his ruined career, for the putative scientific "sin" of seeking better data and questioning oligarchic orthodoxy, including (my favorite) taking "unauthorized soil samples" and sharing them with his brother, a USGS scientist, thereby leading to the unravelling of a decades-long criminal coverup of environmental crimes on our Oak Ridge Reservation.  Truly heroic. 

For context, I've added historic articles on our Oak RIdge Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant pollution declassification scoop:

From Fredericksburg, VA Free-Lance Star, 2017:


Stephen B. Gough

Dr. Stephen Bradford Gough, 56, of Fredericksburg died Monday, July 9, 2007, at his home. He was the son of the late Clifford Lea and Elizabeth Phillips Gough and is survived by his mother, Mary Rankin Gough, of New Castle, Ind.

Dr. Gough had obtained the rank of Eagle Scout with the Boy Scouts of America and was a graduate of Caroll College in Waukesha, Wis. He was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Dr. Gough had taught at both Germanna Community College and Mary Washington College, and was a member of Sigma XI. He had a great love for his family, the environment, nature and photography.

Survivors include his wife, Ursula Gough; two daughters, Jennifer Ann Catalano and her husband, David, of Blacksburg and Lisa Marie Morisco and her husband, Jason, of Floyd; one son, Christopher Michael Gough, and his wife, Meghan, of Columbus, Ohio; two stepdaughters, Emily Ann Fitzgerald and Heather Marie Fitzgerald, both of Fredericksburg; one stepson, Robert Lee Fitzgerald of Baltimore, Md.; granddaughter, Anna Elizabeth Gough of Columbus; grandson, Andrew Michael Fitzgerald of Fredericksburg; one sister, Betty Jane Meadows and her husband, Bud, of Denver, Colo.; and two brothers, James Allen Gough and his wife, Deborah, of Atlanta, Ga., and Larry Phillips Gough and his wife, Sharon, of Reston.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Friday, July 13, at Covenant Funeral Service, Fredericksburg, with Pastor Debbie Carey officiating. Burial will be private. The family will receive friends at the funeral home one hour prior to the service time.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in memory of Stephen Bradford Gough to World Wildlife Fund, or 800/225-5993.

Online guest book at

From The New York Times:  


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May 26, 1983, Section A, Page 14Buy Reprints
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''It's a miracle city,'' said Mayor Alvin K. Bissell. ''It's an aberration,'' said Steve Gough. It is not surprising that the two men hold contrasting views of this town, which was started from scratch in 1943 and run for many years by the Federal Government as a weapons research and parts production facility. Partly as a result of Mr. Gough's suspicions and his surreptitious tests, Mr. Bissell's ''miracle city'' in the Cumberland foothills has become the center of a controversy over huge mercury spills.

Mayor Bissell, 71 years old, has held office for the last 25 years and was one of Oak Ridge's original settlers. A good-humored and tireless town booster, he is not alone in extolling it as a mecca of ''good'' science, patriotism and the good life. He and many other residents take pride in the complex's role in making the atomic bomb in World War II, and in its current task of uranium enrichment, energy research and fabrication of some parts for weapons, such as the MX or cruise missile. 'Town With a Mission'

''It just erupted, rose up out of farmland, and it was a oneindustry town with a mission,'' said the Mayor. ''And it succeeded in that mission.''

Mr. Gough, a 32-year-old research biologist, on the other hand, had until last year lived in Oak Ridge for six years and worked for Union Carbide, which operates the complex's research laboratory and its two sprawling manufacturing facilities. In 1981 he secretly took samples of water and plant life from the East Fork Poplar Creek near the Oak Ridge complex's Y-12 plant, had them analyzed and found high concentrations of mercury.

Mr. Gough, who was part of a Union Carbide environmental monitoring team at the uranium enrichment plant on the property's western part, suspected there was contamination from the Y-12 plant, which made weapons components, on the far eastern part. This area was not being monitored to the his knowledge.

Mr. Gough reported his findings and subsequently complained to the Department of Energy that Federal officials at Oak Ridge had done nothing about them. Afterward, he said, he suffered a ''subtle kind of ostracism'' in the city and eventually left. Peer Pressured Cited

''It is an intellectual ghetto, an aberration in which there is enormous peer pressure to conform,'' said Mr. Gough, now a computer software specialist with a military contractor in Fredericksburg, Va. ''There is a definite feeling there that whatever is done is sanctioned - it's O.K., it's good science.''

Mr. Gough's work and subsequent investigations by the Tennessee Department of Health and Environment led to disclosures last week that from 1954 to the present there had been unpermitted discharges or unreported spills of up to 2.4 million pounds of mercury at the Y-12 plant.

Barry Sulkin, an investigator for the state agency, said that tests on bluegill fish showed higher mercury content than permitted by Food and Drug Administration standards as well as high concentrations of mercury in sediments and grass. Since then, two Congressman from the area have scheduled hearings next month on the mercury spills, the Department of Energy has announced an inquiry into charges of a coverup of the spills, and the Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies have further delayed action on renewing the facility's license to discharge waste into the creek.

'At this point I consider it an environmental problem and not necessarily a health problem,'' said Mr. Sulkin. ''But I think its just the tip of the iceberg of problems here.''

''The rest of the problem is what happened to radioactive wastes and PCB's that they have used and what they are doing today,'' he said, referring to polychlorinated biphenyls. Absorption of Mercury

Solid mercury, either dissolved in water or locked in sediment, is not easily absorbed by fish or humans. But the action of anaerobic bacteria in fresh water, sediments, fish or humans creates methylmercury, which is easily absorbed. Methylmercury in large doses can cause nausea, vomiting, kidney damage, loss of memory, slurring of speech and brain damage.

Little is known about how solid mercury moves through waterways. A 1975 study by the Virginia State Water Control Board of mercury discharges in the Holston River showed methylmercury levels in fish and water increasing 10 years after the mercury discharges stopped and as far as 75 miles down the river from the original source.

Dr. William R. Bibb, the Department of Energy's director of energy programs at Oak Ridge, said the mercury discharges and spills were linked to a lithium separation process at the Y-12 plant that was in use from 1953 to 1963.

But he said that their own studies showed no more than 500,000 pounds of the metal went directly into East Fork Poplar Creek. An estimated 1.9 million pounds that was discharged or spilled, he said, seeped into the deep fissures of the layers of clay, limestone and shale under the 93-square-mile complex and remains trapped there. Dispute on Contamination

There was little likelihood, he said, of contamination to drinking water because the city's water supply is drawn upstream of the plant. As for the contaminated fish, a report by officials at the facility suggested that since Oak Ridge was a ''relatively affluent city for East Tennessee, populated by scientists and engineers who have other life pursuits than habitual sports fishing,'' it seemed unlikely there would be a problem from fish consumption.

Jimmy Fuzzell 2d disagrees. He is one of about 1,500 blacks in the Scarboro, a community along the East Fork Poplar Creek about 100 yards from the fence around the complex and barely two miles from the Y-12 plant. Scarboro was also built by the Government and laid out with such street names as Tuskegee, Bethune and Carver.

Standing on the banks of the creek, the 33-year-old Mr. Fuzzell talked of how as a child and as an adult he and others ate the small smeltlike bluegill, as well as turtles taken from the creek. He remembers swimming in it and swallowing a lot of water, he said.

With high unemployment among blacks in the city, there was more fishing there until recently, he said. He said the report's comment about the paucity of fishing in the creek struck him as typical of the attitudes in Oak Ridge. 

'Needs of the Elite'

''This town is structured around the needs of the elite and no one else,'' he said. A neighbor, E.L. Henderson, who works at the complex, said that he, too, swam and fished in the creek as a child but that he was not worried about the reports on contamination.

"'Some people say that this is because they want to close Oak Ridge down, and the employees are worried about that,'' said the 30-yearold Mr. Henderson. ''I'm not worried about the mercury, but I would worry about it less if they stopped writing about it.''

Mayor Bissell said that most Oak Ridgers had not mentioned the reports of mercury spills to him and that he suspected this was because, being people of science, they are reasonable people who wait to hear all the facts and believe all things are solvable.

''We believe here that the dumber you are, the better critic you make,'' said the Mayor.

A version of this article appears in print on May 26, 1983, Section A, Page 14 of the National edition with the headline: DISCOVERY OF MERCURY CONTAMINATION PROMPTS DISPUTE IN OAK RIDGE, TENN.Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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