Nuclear Narratives – When Cold War Starts, the Hot Milk Gets Poured

[last of a two-part series -- part one, here  -- on Hanford and the Bomb!]

Hanford is the most tragic chapter in American Cold War history.
— Stewart Udall secretary of the interior under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson

How many times have we heard – “Eat your veggies, fruit  and cheese, and drink three glasses of milk a day. You’ll grow up strong, healthy, the picture of a gallant, robust American”?

Good advice pre-Ozzie and Harriet days. For Spokane and other cities, the milk pathway, as scientists call it, is where the cows in the Tri-Cities grazed on contaminated hay and grass, laced with iodine-131. That milk was shipped twice weekly to our fair city starting in the 1940s through 1960s.

Thyroids and guts went haywire, and cancers developed. Or at least that’s what one side of the downwinder story unveiled.

As innocuous as it may sound, the 1949 “Green Run” at Hanford will live in infamy, tying people living throughout Washington, Idaho and Oregon at the time of the radioactive releases to their shared destiny.

Keep in mind that there are human consequences to the story of nuclear energy, hitched to the atom bomb, and now forever galvanized to the entire question about nuclear energy’s efficacy. For now, there are three downwinders and one author rendezvousing to propel the sometimes misbegotten legacy of those sickened by Hanford and corralled by the secrecy. Their narrative is enmeshed in the story of milk trains coming to Spokane and the winds of radioactive sickness and slow death tracing the hills, coulees, valleys and Ice Age-flooded scablands of this unique place of first nations tribes who are now relegated to their own reservations.

When Radioactive History is Rewritten, People’s Stories Surface

Many tribes have pulled out three-eyed salmon from the Columbia. Even articles in the Spokesman titled  “The Night the Little Demons were Born” dating to 1985 bespeak the X-Files lore of Hanford and its plutonium by-products, technically called radionuclides.

For the Richland and Tri-Cities stakeholders perpetuating the history and the uneven narrative of Hanford and the massive clean-up effort and contamination zone that “made” the Tri-Cities one of the fastest growth areas of the country, this is a time of looking at the “positives” of supposedly winning the Cold War and facing down nuclear annihilation.

Thanks might go out to some of the players – the farmers and ranchers displaced in 1943, the 50,000 new inhabitants who broke ground, dug holes, laid cement and riveted, hammered and welded Hanford into existence. Most have moved on, died early deaths, or are silent reminders of science’s limitations.

Egghead German, US scientists Lurking around Hospital Wards and Calving Fields

Then, the strange visitors came in the night to ward rooms of the hospitals. They confiscated, quarantined livestock deformed and punished by nuclear mutations. The boys and girls with aches and pains, paralysis and fatigue were secretly studied, charted, cited in reports.

“Hell, the miscreants like me never listened to our moms,” said Tom Bailie.  Born at Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Pasco, in 1947, Bailie is the epitome of a one class of downwinder:  “I was  taken back to the family farm located in the Hanford buffer zone where I have been all my life since. I have planted and harvested forty-nine continuous crop years, forty calf crops and eighteen lambing crops. Raised seven children. I was a good farmer and father. Now I am an old storyteller.”

Story is culture, culture is history, history is humanity. It’s not easy to parse that out in today’s mad-rush society that puts technology above all else, forgets the past, and then laments the present foibles of a consumer society bent on possibly shackling us to myths, propaganda, lies – anything to get us through a very complicated, globally-aware day.

For Lisa Toomey, Richland mover and shaker and museum director, the “atom-splitting” is her chance to pay homage to the science, to the war effort, to the patriotism, and a way to reclaim some historical nooks and crannies. For Sharon Holden, WSU Tri-Cities director of advancement, the October month-long First Annual Celebration of the 70 years after the Hanford project broke ground means wrangling in many tangents to the stories tied to a secret program that eventually annihilated Japanese civilians in two large cities.

The downwinder story is one that cross-pollinates the history and honoring nature of American greatness, as in any Marshall Plan or Apollo program greatness.

“August 13, 1942 the Manhattan Project was started!   August 14, 1945, the Japanese surrendered!   This was done with NO computers, only slide rulers and hand-drawn blueprints.   These are extremely powerful accomplishments that must be captured,” so says another organizer of the event, Gary Petersen, TRIDEC Vice President.

To be or not to be … a whistleblower

This is a story within a million stories, or more, and we have only so much reach to wrap our collective, distracted arms around stories of pain. Yet,  the downwinder story is one of the pawns in the larger chess match between science and government against the common public. People who did the work they were asked to do were sacrificed. As one downwinder calls it, “ A Sacrifice Zone of people who just did what they always did to make a living, farming, and raising families and building communities who ended up racked with illness, pain, premature death.”

Being a downwinder means calling a spade a spade.

“I think that one aspect of the Manhattan Project commemoration story that is really interesting is that, particularly with the little group of downwinders participating in the session, we form an unusual combination of  three people, all of who were kids around the same time, and all of whom ended up as health-damaged Hanford downwinders,” says Trisha Pritikin, lawyer, occupation therapist and child of a Hanford scientist and secretary.

“We are the combination of Tom Bailie who grew up on a farm downwind from Hanford in Mesa. Me, who grew up in Richland as the kid of the nuclear culture. And, Jay Mullen, the kid of a military family on a base, in Idaho (Farragut Naval Training Station).  Three very different childhoods, but we are tied together by the invisible tentacles of radiation discharged from Hanford.”

I spent hours with Jay Mullen, colorful, articulate, former CIA operative in Uganda and other African nations, and retired Southern Oregon University history professor. Talk about opening the proverbial Pandora’s  box talking with him about how the two kids out of four who ended up at the Lake Pend Oreille base ended up with huge thyroid problems.

“My other siblings left in Missouri had no problems whatsoever. My sister’s thyroid was shot. I was a medical freak.” His father declared bankruptcy because the young Jay was paralyzed at age 19, out of the blue. He was a strapping rugby  player who woke up paralyzed from the neck down. He ended up being directed to University of California-San Francisco.

“They never saw anything like this. I was studied as a freak, had my thyroid taken out, and life went on.”

His sister was the big ice cream and milk drinker, and she was hit harder by the iodine 131.

Green Mile (death row walk), or Green Run – the secret ugly trickery of scientists who have no concern for precautionary principles . . .  people be damned. That was weeks before the Christmas holidays – Dec. 2-3, 1949, when the radioisotopes at Hanford were released supposedly meant to be detected by U.S. Air Force reconnaissance. Iodine-131 and an even larger doses of xenon-133 were “intentionally distributed over populated areas.”

Remember, this is information coming out in 1988, and these Freedom of Information requests show that there were many other tests in the 1940s and they resumed in the 1960s.

Putting Face to Destinies Entwined by the Government’s Human  Guinea Pig Experiments

Any oral history of a time or incident or moment in this country’s manifest “destiny” has to be a people’s history. With that comes the faces of these people in their youth, at that juncture of innocence and unknowing destiny (contamination).

Each person’s photographic life is tied to a sketch:

Trisha  —  My training is as an occupational therapist and attorney.  Due to my current Hanford-related health restrictions, what began as a healthy childhood has evolved into a health-impacted adulthood.   I have applied my training to the volunteer work i do on behalf of the downwinders, and it is my mission to keep the Downwinders’ story in the public consciousness through my writing.

Jay – Maybe I am tilting at windmills. In 1986 a student who was arrested at Diablo Canyon came to Southern Oregon University. She was in my classes, and heard I had been paralyzed as a young adult. She came up after and told me about the releases information.  That’s when I first became a downwinder.

Tom —    Who am I? Son of a downwind sharecropper that farmed up to the perimeter fence on the east side of Hanford who enjoys asking questions about what I have seen and continue to see and learn about my lifelong neighbor Hanford. Then telling stories about the downwinders’  lives and piecing them together with answered questions from declassified documents.

Now enter the fourth player in this story around the anniversary of Hanford’s reactor and plutonium processing high jinks: East Coast historian and author of a book, half of which is entwined with the sinew of the Columbia River and the prevailing winds that reached the bodies of downwinders.

Kate Brown:  This might be too late, but I will send along a photo of me in the Chernobyl zone. That is how I got on the topic of Hanford, after I went to the C zone, wrote about it and an editor asked me to write a book on Chernobyl as a pivotal moment in history.  I looked into it, and realized there were these two other places with much more radiation spilled, and most of it wasn’t an accident, but intentional dumping into water, air and soil.  So I wrote Plutopia:Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters.

This narrative of contaminated milk and government secrecy will not end with the stories of the downwinders, if they ever see the complete light of day. Spokesman Review reporter Karen Dorn Steel has been hot on the hot trail of downwinder infamy since 1985, and in one sense it was Tom Bailie who undammed the tides of this story to her.

For Brown, this is a story of whistleblowers, civil society demanding answers and justice, chronic radiation syndrome, and a legacy of covering up and multi-million dollar contracts paid by you, me and our great-great-great grandkids yet to be born. The ironic use of “Plutopia” in her title draws from the fact that these places are highly subsidized locales with great paying jobs and free health care.

Secrecy, Tragedy, Rising Ashes — Truth

A photo may capture a thousand nuances, but her book paints a million stories:

“Because of the decades of secrecy, downwind and downriver neighbors of the plutonium plants had difficulty proving what they suspected, that the rash of illnesses, cancers, and birth defects in their communities were caused by the plants’ radioactive emissions. Plutopia was successful because in its zoned-off isolation it appeared to deliver the promises of the American dream and Soviet communism; in reality, it concealed disasters that remain highly unstable and threatening today.”

While I was hot on the heels of by far more in-depth and seasoned in-the-Hanford-mess reporters, I did find out that the 70th Anniversary events in Richland did not include the downwinder story, which is–  for anyone living the dream of America or living its struggle — the archetypal story of democracy tied to capitalism, capital tied to imperial designs, and the entire struggle of the planet against a few financial and military superpowers.

Trisha is a bellwether plaintiff who just two months ago survived a bombardment of lawyers’ cross examinations to try and break her. She easily survived that, and someone like Professor Mullen will too be an arrow in the class action lawsuit. Tom Bailie’s been featured in documentaries on PBS, been interviewed in his wheat field by Connie Chung and has been a luminary in Japan sharing the dais with Japan’s survivors.

These are the hard facts – “I have lost my family, my health, my wage earning capacity.  My entire life course has been altered, and the personal losses have been huge. I often feel like all of this is a nightmare that I cannot awaken from,” Trisha told me from her home in Berkeley.

I talked with Bailie before heading to Richland to moderate the panel the downwinders cobbled together with their own money to reserve a space with the “celebration” bigwigs. His early life was tied to an iron lung and the nuns strapping him down on a metal table for hot leather body compresses to chase away the polio.  “Look it up, the Sister Kenny Hot Pack Treatment for Polio.”

Miscarriage of Justice, Miscarried Fetuses

I did follow up, as any reporter would on the trail of a story with a Hydrae’s head of many victims, antagonists, demons. “My father and four uncles all had intestinal tumors. My grandfather died of liver cancer. And, my grandmother died of cancer of the colon. All my sisters suffered from thyroid problems. You want to hear about my mother and most of the women I’ve known? They all had miscarriages. My cousin lost six fetuses.”

The panel of downwinders had been amassed on short notice in September, and October 25 (after this article was published) four voices for millions spoke to the Richland crowd. The readers have to realize that these steam or gas releases went all the way to Montana, Canada and California.

This is a cautionary tale. Professor Brown (University of Maryland) makes it clear that hydraulic fracturing — “natural gas fracking” – is yet another chapter in science trumping humanity: people whose livelihoods, ways of life, and health are compromised by ethically-challenged industries with a large dose of media complacency and government cover-up.

Talking with these incredible people, I see that this never-ending story of the Hanford atomic legacy is melded to other stories I’ve confronted in other parts of the world. Think Vietnam, Agent Orange, and 20 years after the US bombing when I was there, young women with 16 times the safe amounts of PCB in breast milk.

“It’s not just about iodine -131 or plutonium,” Bailie tells me. “Around 1954 or ’55, there was an incident, where ruthenium oxide flakes were falling on the wheat crop. I was out there, on my father’s farm. Those declassified documents stated that the Atomic Energy Commission was told about the radioactive flakes, and they said go ahead with the harvest so there wouldn’t be any public knowledge, outcry.”

Hence, the downwinder panel, scrappy and on a shoestring budget, prevails again, up against 70 years  of radioactive releases, leaks, secrets.

Trisha has been concerned about a potential public lynching of her and her brethren’s reputations. Jay Mullen with his Idi Amin experience in the CIA is nonplussed. Bailie is always the scrappy farmer-fighter willing to go 15 rounds. Kate Brown is the calm detail-oriented historian.

“Attendees to our session will be reminded of the impact that Hanford operations had on the health of those of us, families of workers, who lived in the shadow of the plant, and on those who lived in farming and another communities downwind.  Whether worker families or families without relationship to the plant, we were commonly deceived by the operators of the plant who reassured populations downwind that the facility did not pose threat to human health,” Trisha breathlessly punctuates the interview with.

Paul Kirk has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. Read other articles by Paul.