40 years ago today.
Members of Congress wanted answers, or at least then-Rep. Al Gore and some others acted like they did, Newspapers around the nation reported the then newly "declassified" Oak Ridge Y-12 Nuclear Weapon Plant pollution, including the largest mercury pollution event in world history. For background read Elliott Marshall's July 8, 1983 article from SCIENCE Magazine, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Anderson County District Attorney General James Nelson Ramsey recommended me for a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting over the mercury declassification,
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).
- DOE named Marilyn Lloyd to the Energy Advisory Board
- DOE named ORNL's 80 acre environmental and lie sciences complex for Mariyn Lloyd.
- 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.
The Al Gore hearing followed, like a bird on a wagon.
Yet, at the hearing, I was the only witness to call for criminal prosecution. No one was ever prosecuted.
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, 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 Secretary 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 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.
The month after Gore's July 11, 1983 mercury hearing, I went on to start Memphis State University Law School, and then 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.