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Karen Silkwood: A Radioactive Angel

By Patrick Murfin - Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout, November 13, 2015

Author's Introduction: After a version of this piece ran two years ago, I heard from Karen Silkwood’s daughter, Elaine Lipsey who felt that I had misrepresented her mother’s life and maligned her memory.  Since I admired Silkwood and her sacrifice, I was alarmed.  I re-read my piece and found that for dramatic effect I may have sounded harsh and judgemental about some of her choices in life.  I have revised the post with that in mind.  I have changed no facts about her life, but have changed in places how I characterized them.  I don’t know if this will satisfy Ms. Lipsey, but it makes me feel better.

She might have been the model for a damn fine, weepy-at-three-o’clock-in-the-morning country and western song.  You certainly would not have picked her out of a line-up as martyr or hero.  Her life was often chaotic and some of her choices made that worse.  But the same could be said of many young working class women of that time and place.  Heroes, after all, are not saints but those who rise to the occasion when needed.  That was Karen Silkwood who died on a lonely stretch of Oklahoma highway under suspicious circumstances on November 13, 1974.

I first became aware of her a little later.  An exchange issue of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers News crossed my desk at the Industrial Worker a month or two later.  A cover story told of the death of a rank-and-file union militant at a Kerr-McGee plutonium processing plant in Crescent, Oklahoma.  She had reported on repeated safety violations, including spills and contamination at the plant and then had discovered she had been contaminated with massive over exposure to the plutonium, one of the most lethal substances on earth.  Feeling that she was literally a walking corpse—that the plutonium poisoning would kill her—she he agreed to meet a New York Times reporter with documents she had stolen from the plant that would prove her allegations of criminal neglect by the company.  She was killed in a mysterious car wreck late at night on the way to meet the reporter and an officer of the union.  The documents she was carrying were missing from her car and never found.

Despite the involvement of the Times reporter, her death had attracted little initial interest beyond routine coverage in the local press, where the determination of the State Police that Silkwood, with Quaaludes in her system and marijuana in her car, probably fell asleep and ran off the road at high speed smashing into a culvert. 

Based on coverage from the OCAW, I featured Silkwood’s death in the Industrial Worker with a dramatic drawing by Leslie Fish based on one of the few photographs of the young woman on the quarter-fold cover.

The OCAW News may have reached more readers.  The AFL-CIO affiliate had tens of thousands more members than the tiny Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), but could generate little interest outside the labor movement.  The Industrial Worker, on the other hand, had the advantage of membership in the old Underground Press Syndicate and Liberation News Service.  The first was basically an exchange among not only so called underground press of alternative newspapers in cities around the country, but most of the radical and left newspapers and magazines, each with reprint rights.  LNS was a service based out of New York that mailed weekly packets to member publications with a combination of original material and copy from subscribing publications.  Between the two the IW’s coverage began to get picked up and spread. 

So my second hand reporting, which continued over a few issues as developments arose, played a small role in spreading an important story.  Eventually the mainstream press picked it up. Looking back it seems like some of the best work I did in my time with the paper.

Publicity about the case caused the Atomic Energy Commission to review safety procedures at the plant, including things brought to their attention by Silkwood and the OCAW before her death.  They found her allegations of gross violations by-in-large true.  Kerr-McGee was forced to close the Crescent plant in 1975 and paid heavy fines.  The plant closure cost the company millions and continued to be a drain for years. The plant still is not completely decontaminated and decommissioned despite many tries.  Groundwater near the plant continues to have traces of plutonium 200 or more time the Federally acceptable level.

So what about Silkwood herself?

She was born on February 19, 1946 in Longview along the Sabine River in east Texas, the terminal of the Big Inch Pipeline that delivered Texas crude oil to refineries and shipping facilities around Beaumont and Port Arthur.  She was raised in Nederland, a small community in the Beaumont/Port Arthur metropolitan area.  Her father, like most of her neighbors, worked in the petroleum industry.

Silkwood was a bright, ambitious, but restless girl.  She got decent grades in school without trying too hard and spent a lot of time partying.  She had the same restless spirit and often feelings of alienation that affected a contemporary from near-by Port Arthur—Janis Joplin.

After graduation she attended Lamar University in Beaumont, a state university concentrating on supplying engineering and science graduates for the petro-chemical industry. 

Whatever Silkwood’s dreams were, they were interrupted when she got pregnant and married her boyfriend, oil worker William Meadows in 1965.  She was just 19.  The first child, a daughter named Kristi was followed two years later by a son, Michael, then by another daughter, Dawn.  Although the young family was comfortable enough on the good pay that a union oil worker pulled down in those boom years, Silkwood was increasingly restless as a stay at home mom and homemaker.  She drank, she smoked dope, she partied hard with and without her husband.  She was alternately doting with the children and profanely angry at the world.

One day in 1972 Silkwood told Kristi that she was going out for cigarettes.  She never returned home, abandoning her husband and children and heading to Oklahoma City to start a new life.  The children’s dim memories of their mother would not be good ones, although perhaps colored by the bitterness of her husband.

Why Oklahoma City?  Who knows.  It was a big city far, but not too far from home.  Silkwood got a job in a hospital there but was at loose ends. 

Early in 1972 she was hired as a metallurgical technician at the Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site near Crescent. It was a decent paying job—$4 an hour, although known to be hazardous.  Among her duties were polishing nuclear fuel rods.  She moved to a run-down house which she shared with co-workers Drew Stephens and Sherri Ellis.  Off the job the trio drank, smoked dope, and partied together.  Stepehens became Silkwood’s boyfriend but barely rose above the level of her living with “some dude.”  She and Ellis may have also had a relationship.

The OCAW was trying to gain recognition at the plant when she was hired. For whatever reasons, Silkwood threw herself into union activity.  She quickly became the only woman on the union negotiating team.    A strike was called and failed after which many workers abandoned the union.  Not Silkwood.  She stepped up her activity and was soon head of the safety committee.

She experienced minor contamination events herself, each one requiring a painful and humiliating full body scrubbing with scalding water and rough brushes by fellow workers in contamination suits.  She quickly began to take note of several violations she found around the plant.

In the summer of 2004 Silkwood was among a handful of workers that the union brought to testify about safety conditions at the plant before the Atomic Energy Commission.  Most damagingly, she charged the company with falsifying safety reports.   After that she was more than just an irritant to the company who could not easily be fired while the AEC investigated, she was a marked woman.

Through the late summer and fall, Silkwood filed several safety complaints with the company.  She also began to collect documents from the plant, lifting or copying confidential company files when she had a chance.  And she wasn’t discrete about telling friends what she was doing and about her plans to turn the documents over the union—and maybe the press.

On November 4 while conducting a routine self-check, she discovered that her body contained over 400 times the legal with plutonium.  Exposure at that level, an expert later acknowledged was a “confirmed date with lung cancer.”  She was sent home after another decontamination with kits to collect urine and stool samples.

The next day she was assigned to desk duty and spent part of her time in a union negotiating meeting.  Despite not being in areas of the plant where plutonium was active, she once again found contaminated and given an even more intense decontamination.     When she returned to work on November 7, she set off alarms.

Silkwood was sent home with a team of heath engineers who tore apart her house.  They found high levels of contamination in the bathroom and in the refrigerator.  Kerr-McGee would later charge that she poisoned herself in an effort to discredit the company.

None of the evidence was ever consistent with that charge.  Postmortem examination showed that her lungs and digestive track were particularly exposed, indicating that she breathed in particles and ingested or ate something contaminated with them.  Although contamination was found in the two spots in her home, neither her car nor work locker tested positive meaning that there was no way for her to have transported the contamination.

Later research established that the type of plutonium to which Silkwood was exposed came only from a production area to which she had not had access for four months.   Although nothing was ever proved, the deep and abiding suspicion is that Silkwood was poisoned to frighten her and the union into silence by the company or even by fellow employees angry that her activities might cost them their jobs.

And Silkwood was frightened.  Terrified even.  The fear was intensified as she received threatening phone calls at the house.  But she was also mad.  She was sure that she had been, essentially, already murdered.  She gathered all of the information she had into a binder and a manila file.  She contacted New York Times reporter David Burnam, who was interested in a story about nuclear safety.  She arranged to meet him and a union representative in Oklahoma City. 

On the evening of November 13 Silkwood met with other union members at the Hub Cafe in Crescent.  She showed them the material she was bringing to Burnam.  Several people testified that she had it with her when she got into new Honda Civic to drive alone to Oklahoma City.

She never made it.  Did she pop some ludes and smoke a joint to take the edge off of nerves?  Not unlikely.  Did they put her to sleep or render her unconscious as the State Police determined?  Highly unlikely.  She left a long skid mark before leaving the road, meaning she was not asleep and alert enough to apply the break.  Moreover the new car, which had never been in an accident, had damage to the rear in which paint chips were found.  Meaning another vehicle was in contact with hers—and likely forced her off the road.  Most of the damage to the car was in the front end collision with the culvert.  Silkwood likely died almost immediately from the impact.

State Police said they did not find the documents known to be in her possession.  Either someone removed them from the car after the crash, or the Police themselves retrieved the documents as a favor to the most powerful corporation in Oklahoma.  

The postmortem examination of her organs was enough to convince the AEC to launch a real investigation of the plant.   As noted above, within a year it was closed.

Despite mounting evidence that the crash was not an accident, State Police and local prosecutors refused to re-open the case.

The family, her father and children, filed a wrongful death case against Kerr-McGee on behalf of her estate.  The case drew the attention of Ms. Magazine which helped to fund the family’s legal team was headed by famed Cheyenne hot shot lawyer Gerry Spence.  Equally high-powered Kerr-McGee attorneys vilified Silkwood as a negligent parent, a sexual tramp, drug user, and mentally unstable.  She was a deranged and disgruntled employee who staged her own poisoning and contamination—and implied that she crashed her own car just to discredit a fine corporate citizen.

The jury wasn’t buying it.  They found for the family and imposed awarded $505,000 in real damages and $10 million in punitive damages. A Federal appeals court reduced damages to just $5,000 to cover the cost of damage to her property and possessions in the search of her home and tossed the punitive damages entirely, saying punishing the company was the sole province of the AEC.

In 1984 he Supreme Court, however, finally reaffirmed the original verdict and held that AEC action did not preclude the estate from finding redress in state courts.  They sent the case back to the lower court to review damage and punitive damage awards.  Eventually the parties settled out of court with Kerr-McGee admitting no guilt.  They paid the estate and its lawyers   $1.35 million, less than 10% of the original judgment.

By then Silkwood’s case had become famous, especially in the light of the award winning 1983 film Silkwood directed by Mike Nichols, co-written by Nora Ephron, and famously starring Meryl Streep as Karen, Kurt Russell as the boyfriend, and Cher as a thinly disguised version of the other roommate.  The film, remarkably, was pretty true to the known facts.  Despites threat of law suits, Kerr-McGee was identified by name.

Since then the case has surfaced from time to time.  Industry apologists continue to smear Silkwood.  In 2000 Richard L. Rashk published The Killing of Karen Silkwood in which he spins a wild yarn alleging that she was assassinated by government agents somehow trying to cover up the diversion of 44 pounds of plutonium for possible sale on the world market and a scramble by the CIA, British MI5, the Israeli Mossad and rogue Iranians to find it.   I’m only surprised that Marilynn Monroe was not somehow involved.  Ah, Americans and their conspiracy theories.

As for me, the answer is simpler.  Kerr-McGee has blood on its hands.

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