Sunday, February 04, 2024

February 5, 1992

Time flies. It was 32 years ago:

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 for raising concerns about horrific working conditions, in some of the most contaminated workplaces n Earth.  But sometimes, a white van is simply a white van .

On this day in 1992, 32 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, his wife, Fran, and to Matt, to reporter Erin Hayes and her March 11, 1992 story on Dan Rather's "Eye On America" segment, and to my co-counsel, David A. Stuart, Christopher J. Van Riper, Jacqueline O. Kittrell, of counsel Prof. Robert C. Banks, Jr. , U.S. Department of Labor District Chief Administrative Law Judge Theodor von Brand, honest witnesses who told the truth, and numerous other ethical whistleblowers, three badly mismanaged Department of Energy 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.  Dr. SHULTS said in deposition, "I always heard that radiation is good for cancer patients."  ORNL and SHULTS also exposed Mr. Varnadore to mercury waste vapors; Dr. SHULTS said he would "wash his hands in mercury" and "take a bath in mercury," as long as he could cover his "body openings."

This sadistic manager later assigned Bud to a desk in a room contaminated with mercury and other leaking chemicals.  In response to crummy industrial hygiene and sadistic assignment of office space, Dr. SHULTS said he would wash his hands in mercury, even take a bath in mercury, "if I could cover my body openings."

Nuclear weapons facilities had long suppressed worker concerns with sadistic techniques that shock the conscience. William 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

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