The Manhattan Project

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Karen Dorn Steele's Interview

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Karen Dorn Steele's Interview

Karen Dorn Steele is a journalist. As a reporter for the Spokesman-Review, she broke the story about the Green Run test, in which the U.S. government released radioactive gases in 1949 over areas surrounding the Hanford Site. Subsequently, she covered the Hanford Downwinder litigation, in which residents living around the Hanford Site sued the federal government over the health complications they suffered from as a result of radiation exposure. In this interview, she discusses how she discovered the Green Run through FOIA document requests. She describes covering the Downwinder litigation and her thoughts on how the trial was managed. Dorn Steele remembers meeting and interviewing some of the plaintiffs, and how their lives were impacted by the Hanford Site.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
January 15, 2019
Location of the Interview: 
Lynnwood
Transcript: 

Trisha Pritikin: We are in Lynnwood, Washington. Karen, can you spell your name and say your name, please?

Karen Dorn Steele: Yeah. So, my name’s Karen Dorn Steele. K-a-r-e-n D-o-r-n S-t-e-e-l-e.

Pritikin: Okay. I’d like to start with having you tell us, please, about your early life overseas growing up as the child of a press liaison for the U.S. Information Agency.

Steele: My father had been a reporter in the 1940s and early ‘50s for the Portland Oregonian. In 1952, he left the newspaper and wanted to go overseas. So, he joined the Foreign Service. From the time I was nine years old until I went to college, I was overseas on various foreign assignments.

It was very interesting. I went to French school when I was nine, so I learned French. And I also learned, living outside the country so much, to kind of be an observer of other cultures and other places, because it wasn’t my home culture.

When I was nine, they used to give us wine mixed with water for lunch in the Belgian school. My mother complained, and the headmistress said, “Well, milk, madame, is for cats,” when my mother asked to have milk served to the children. There are all these cultural differences that I was able to observe growing up.

Pritikin: Tell us about some of the journalists that you met as a young person.

Steele: Our assignment in the late ‘50s was Morocco. We went to Morocco and were in the embassy. My father was in the embassy in Rabat from 1956 to ’57. Because he was a press attaché there, his job, obviously, was to get to know the Moroccan press, but also to squire U.S. journalists around.

I met David Schoenborn, who was a correspondent for television networks, and Pierre Salinger. And a wonderful British woman, she worked for the BBC, named Margaret Pope, who became my unconscious role model, because she was very ambitious. She spoke fluent Arabic, and she would ride into the Atlas Mountains with the Berber [a-mazigh] tribesmen. She smoked these long cheroots, these cigars. My mother thought she was scandalous, but I thought she was wonderful. So, it was a very interesting place to live.

Pritikin: Tell us a little bit about what life was like in Morocco. What you can remember?

Steele: I was 14 at the time, so I remember quite a bit. It was my first Muslim country, for one thing, where we weren’t the dominant religion. I went to a French lycée [school] of 1500 girls—Arab girls and French girls. It was extremely exotic and sometimes a little dangerous. You had to watch out. Because I was right at 14, being in the Arab culture sort of a “marriageable age,” my father used to tease me that if I weren’t good, he’d sell my off to somebody. It was sometimes uncomfortable to be a young teenage girl, and we had to be careful what we wore in public.

The beaches were really a scene, because the French were used to wearing their little bikinis on the beach next to the Arab women, who were in full, essentially full burkas. They called them djellaba. They were head-to-toe and black on the beach. It was very diverse place and a very exotic place.

Pritikin: Let’s go ahead in time a little bit. After you graduated from Stanford in 1965, could you please talk a little bit about your time in Washington, D.C., working in Congress for Representative Edith Green of Portland?

Steele: Yes. Representative Green was a Democrat, a kind of conservative Democrat from Portland, and she had been a former schoolteacher and she did a lot. She was on the House Education Committee. This was the Great Society era, when Congress actually functioned and got major legislation through. Lyndon Johnson was president, and the year before, the Civil Rights Act had passed.

But she had found out that there were still major problems with it actually being enforced in the South. I was assigned in my first task to interview Mississippi sharecroppers who were flown up for hearings, but they had to be pre-interviewed. The kind of harassment that they were subject to, just for trying to go to the polls, was really upsetting to me. It made me angry that as a country, we certainly where we should be on the issue of voting rights, and we’re still not quite there today. But it was so blatant then that it got my back up.

Pritikin: Now, I understand you moved to Spokane [Washington] with your first husband, Charlie Dorn, in 1968 after you had finished up your Master’s degree in history at [University of California] Cal-Berkeley.

Steele: Yes, that’s right. My husband had been offered a job at Gonzaga Law School. He had graduated from Harvard Law School. He’d clerked on the 9th Circuit for a year. He wanted to be a law professor. It brought us to Spokane. At first, from San Francisco to Spokane, Washington, I was a little disappointed. But Spokane turned out to be a place where I really could make a break into journalism. It was hard to do in the Bay Area. I was in a Master’s degree program, but women were sort of shunted into fashion and food and cooking and things like that.

In Spokane, I was offered a job as an editorial page writer at the Spokesman Review, which was a daily newspaper in Spokane. At the same time, back in Washington, D.C., many really accomplished women at the news magazines, at Newsweek and The Washington Post, were actually suing their employers, because they had been relegated to research rooms where they would do the research on stories, and the men would get the bylines. To be offered an actual serious, journalistic job in Spokane was my first step into journalism.

Pritikin: Now when you began at the Spokesman, you only stayed a year at first and moved into public television with the public affairs TV show that you yourself ran, called Spokane Weekly from 1973 to ’82, right?

Steele: Yeah, that’s correct.

Pritikin: Can you talk about that a little bit?

Steele: Yes. I liked the Spokesman Review—except that its editorial page kind of mirrored its brick tower, leaning very far to the right. I wasn’t comfortable there doing opinion for them because I was much more liberal than the paper’s opinion pages. I also reviewed the symphony and did music, music reviews, which I really did like.

But I got a chance to join the public television station, and I leaped at it. For one year, I had a show, a new show for children. After that, I was able to become the public affairs director, so for those nine years I had my own public affairs show, Spokane Weekly, in which we were on live once a week. We discussed all kinds of news, public affairs about the inland Northwest. We also did documentaries, like when Mt. St. Helens blew. We did a documentary on that and many other things. A lot of Canadian issues, too, that involved environmental issues like the fate of the Columbia River coming into our state from Canada.

It was an interesting job. I met lots and lots of people nationally, and developed good sources within the region out of that job.

Pritikin: What made you return to the Spokesman Review? At that time, was the Spokesman Review two papers, like the Spokesman Daily Chronicle and the Spokesman Review?

Steele: Yes. I was asked to come back as an enterprise reporter in 1982. There were two papers. I was hired on the staff of the Spokane Daily Chronicle, which was the afternoon paper. We came to work really early in the morning, and the paper went to press about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. But nine months after I got there, they merged the two papers. There was less and less demand for a daily paper, so they just merged us all into one staff at that time.

I continued then to do enterprise work for them and investigative work. We looked into Kaiser Aluminum’s clout in the region on energy issues, and our local utility’s role in bribing legislators in Olympia to get their way. Lots of really interesting stories.

Pritikin: Now, I hear that you have a “Beware! Attack Journalist” shirt that you got for your 40th birthday. Can you talk about that?

Steele: That was just before the two papers were merged. We’d just done a series on Washington Water Power’s bribery of state legislators. Washington Water Power is now called Avista. It’s the major utility for the inland Northwest.

The CEO at the time, a man named Wendell Satre complained about me and a couple of other reporters, saying, “There’s a new atmosphere of attack journalist in Spokane.” My editor made me a shirt, a purple shirt with screaming pink letters. It said, “Beware! Attack Journalist,” for my birthday. I still have that shirt.

Pritikin: When did you start working then on environmental issues for the Spokane Chronicle?

Steele: For the Chronicle? I started worked on environmental issues for the Chronicle just during that nine months. The Kaiser stories were about the Bonneville Power administration, and some of the electricity fights about power and whether power should be diverted at cheap rates for aluminum smelters and things like that. That’s where I first got started in environmental reporting.

Pritikin: I’d like to switch to Hanford now.

Steele: All right.

Pritikin: When did you start to be interested in Hanford as a topic?

Steele: I arrived at the Spokesman Review in 1983, or the end of ’82. One of the big regional topics was emerging at that time was whether Hanford was going to become the nation’s prime waste repository for high-level nuclear waste, predominantly fuel rods from commercial reactors around the county.

There were several sites being considered. There was a site in Texas, and there was a site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, and Hanford. In order to evaluate whether Hanford was an appropriate place to put all this fuel in basalt deep under the ground right next to the Columbia River—I’d studied geology in college, so I knew that basalt is full of cracks.

I tried to find as many sources, both within the Department of Energy, which was pushing this project, and outside people. I found reports from the U.S. Geological Survey that just panned the idea of Hanford as a site, at the same time that Hanford officials were cheerleading for it. Actually, the Department of Energy had moved Hanford up to number one on its list, and the U.S. Geological Survey was saying, “No way should this site even be considered." 

I did a series of articles on—it was called “BWIP,” the Basalt Waste Isolation Project. It was the first time that anybody had written stories that challenged their narrative about what should happen. That was my first set of Hanford stories.

Pritikin: Were there people, powerful people, criticizing your work at this point?

Steele: Later. I think there was more surprise that the Spokane paper was even covering the subject, because it hadn’t in the past.

Spokane had been very conventional. It had very little investigative reporting. It had relied on the Associated Press, basically, just AP stories to put in the paper about Hanford. Suddenly, the wire services were wondering, “Why has the Spokane paper taken up these Hanford subjects?”

Pritikin: Got it. Was it around this time that you filed your first FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request?

Steele: Yes, it was. After I had done the Basalt Waste Isolation Project stories, my byline was out there as someone at our paper interested in these subjects. This was the early days of the Reagan administration, and Reagan had announced a major new nuclear weapons buildup and the restart of the PUREX [Plutonium-Uranium Extraction] plant in 1984.

One day in 1984, I got a call from a woman, who said she was an engineer at PUREX. She said, “The plant is unsafe, and one day we’re going to blow up Pasco.” Those were her literal words. Of course, that got my attention, and I told my editors what I’d heard. Of course, I had no idea who she was. She might’ve been crazy. She might’ve been legitimate.

But I drove there, and checked into a motel. She came to my motel, and showed me her security clearance and we got started. What she was telling, it was that 40 kilograms of plutonium had been listed as missing from the PUREX plant. Nobody knew what “missing” meant—stolen; someplace it shouldn’t have been; building up in the bend of a pipe that might cause a criticality accident, eventually, where the thing would explode.

She gave me some roadblocks as to where to look in documents. She said, “Look for reports called ‘MUFs,’” and I had no idea what that was. It was “Materials Unaccounted For.” That was my first Freedom of Information Act request, to look for the reports on the missing plutonium at Hanford. And she was right. I mean, I got the reports.

It did trigger an FBI visit to the newsroom, because, again, the sense of surprise. Well, here’s this Spokane paper all of a sudden doing these Hanford stories. My editor was asked, “What is she doing? Why is she asking about missing plutonium?”

My editor, to his credit, said, “Thank you. When we report the story, you’ll know what we found,” and ushered the man out the door. The offices of the FBI were right across the street from the newspaper, so he didn’t have to come from far.

But nonetheless, yeah, that was the first reaction I got, that the national security state had some interested in why we were asking for these documents.

Pritikin: Were your editors becoming increasingly supportive at this point of what you were doing? Were they interested in Hanford at this point?

Steele: I was sort of pushing them in that direction. But when we got to the human health tolls of Hanford a little bit later, I had some real convincing to do. But we did publish the report on the missing plutonium, backed up by the documents.

A month later, the Department of Energy opened PUREX for the first time ever to a press tour. They were trying to show us that everything was really—they had everything under control, basically.

We came, the Oregonian, the Seattle Times, the Spokesman paper, other papers, TV stations. I decided that we needed an independent scientist to sort of corroborate what they were saying internally. We brought in Tom Cochran from the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C. He was a prominent physicist, and he attended the tour also.

Pritikin: Interesting. Do you recall what his reaction was to the tour, Tom Cochran?

Steele: He was skeptical of the perfectly safe, and he asked some very probing questions about, “If the plutonium isn’t stolen, where is it, and how much of a hazard is it?” Because, of course, if it is piling up in bends of pipes around the plant, that’s probably a worse hazard than having it stolen, or at least theoretically could be. He asked some very good questions, and it helped give us some context that we might not have had without his presence.

Pritikin: Was there any congressional response to this article that you wrote about the missing plutonium?

Steele: Yes. There was a congressional response, because this was supposed to be the showcase plant for the new nuclear weapons buildup. There were audits made of the plant that were kept confidential, but an auditor eventually went to the Seattle Times with the audits. The Seattle Times was able to do a really big story on the safety, or the lack thereof, of PUREX.

Pritikin: Did they ever locate the missing plutonium?

Steele: They decided that it was not stolen. But they didn’t tell us anything else about where it was.

Pritikin: Amazing. Now I’m going to focus a little bit on a fairly well-known Downwinder that you’ve known for many years. His name is Tom Bailie, a farmer in Mesa, Washington. When and how did you meet Tom Bailie first?

Steele: I met Tom Bailie not too long after the PUREX story. He was in Spokane for a fundraiser for our congressman, Tom Foley, who later became House Majority Leader and House Speaker. He was our Nancy Pelosi. He was having a fundraiser, and Tom was there. Tom had been involved in some issues with the Bonneville Power administration over where power lines would go, and some of them were slated to cross his and his neighbor’s property and he wasn’t happy about that. He was lobbying Tom Foley about that and several other issues. He was a little bit drunk at this fundraiser, and kind of loud.

But anyway, I went up and introduced myself. I said I’m newly covering Hanford and the issues around it, and I knew he lived really close by.

He said, “Well, the only thing Hanford ever did to us was kill a few sheep.”

I’m saying, “Kill a few sheep? What do you mean?”

That was a story that my editors were really suspicious about. They said, “Here’s a loudmouth farmer just talking about sheep deaths. How do we know? All the stories out of the AP, all the stories of the Department of Energy, Hanford has always been perfectly safe. Where’s the story?”

I said, “Well, I’ll look for some documents.”

Before the larger Freedom of Information Act request came six months later, I did a lot of research on my own. I found available documents that showed there had been accidents that affected the farm community where he lived, just across from Hanford. Based on those documents, I got the go ahead to go down and visit him in Mesa.

What Tom did was drive me around for a day and a half and introduce me to many of his neighbors. Leon and Juanita Andrzejewski, who were keeping a death map. They were two farmers. They’d been there a long, long time. I think since 1954, if I’m remembering correctly. They had kept a map of all their neighbors who had died of either cancers or heart attacks. They had this all, Xs and Os for heart attacks. They told me that they had been worried but they had never said anything about their worries, except within this tight-knit farming community.

We went to several other neighbors’ houses. There are lots of Mormons in this community and they tend to be very patriotic and they didn’t really want to talk about possible government injury. We went on to other farmhouses, and we met many, many other people who did want to talk about the fact that they’d always been concerned that there were probably illnesses or accidents that might’ve affected them at Hanford.

I met a very interesting Chinese-American man, H.R. Chin. He had a PhD in chemistry. He lived there. He wanted to have some farmland, so he purchased some farmland there. But he worked for the Pasco Water District. He said, “Well, when I worked there, they gave me these confidential memos that told me not to drink from the Columbia River or irrigate crops from the Columbia River, but I couldn’t tell anybody.” He said, “Because I would’ve lost my job, and they were all confidential.” So, he knew, but he couldn’t tell his neighbors. That was a warning sign, too.

We came to Nels Allisons’ house and a few other farmers, who started talking about actual sheep deaths. I tried to pin down from their farm reports which years they were, and it was in early 1962 that they lost over 100 sheep in that area that were born mummified. They called them “the little demons.”

After that, when I came back to Spokane, I said, “They’re telling some really compelling stories, and not just one person, not just Tom Bailie, but many of them. We need to try to figure out where to take this next.”

Pritikin: Do you know whether the farmers actually sent the, the dead lambs, the mummified lambs, to anywhere to find out why they—

Steele: The Allisons hadn’t sent any, but one other farm family told us that they had sent two mummified lambs to the lab in Pullman [Washington], and that they never got any reply. When the family inquired about why not, someone at Pullman told them that the lambs had been lost or had gone astray somehow on the trip to Pullman. They never got any answers at all from the people in Pullman.

Pritikin: Why was it that they sent the fetuses or mummified lambs to Pullman? What’s the connection?

Steele: I think the connection there was that it was a veterinary school there, and they thought that this was so unusual. They’d never seen lambs born without eyes and with these brittle bones and that couldn’t be delivered. They had to reach into the wombs of the ewes, and pull them out. It was a terrible thing. It was very traumatic. They’d never seen anything like it, and they wondered if WSU [Washington State University] could help them.

Pritikin: There was a veterinarian who was affiliated with WSU in Pullman, correct, that also worked at Hanford?

Steele: Yes. Dr. Leo Bustad had worked at Hanford in the early days. I just found out about him through more documents, research, where they were actually doing experiments with radioactive iodine on sheep, confidentially, at Hanford. But not sharing, of course, any of their information with the farm communities.

I reached out to Dr. Bustad, who by then was a veterinary professor emeritus at Pullman, for an interview. He was the only person in all of this reporting who refused to talk to me. He just would not sit for an interview

Pritikin: That’s interesting. Do you know when the experiments began at Hanford?

Steele: I believe from subsequent documents that they began in the 1950s. I don’t know the whole history of the program, except that they were called upon to produce those studies down in Utah when, during the Nevada Test Site, the dirty bombs, the Upshot Knothole series of nuclear tests that rained down and lots of sheep died, as well as, of course, people being exposed.

But the sheepherders sued. In that lawsuit, in discovery, they asked for studies about sheep deaths that the Atomic Energy Commission [AEC] had. The AEC provided one study that wasn’t pertinent to the lambs who died at Hanford, but they withheld another study of fetal sheep deaths, which they had specifically been doing research on. Judge Sherman Christensen in Nevada called that a fraud on the court, and he ordered a new trial as a result of the AEC withholding pertinent documents from the court.

Pritikin: There was an interconnection between the two sites and the sheep deaths in both sites, possibly.

Steele: Possibly, which I didn’t understand fully at the time. But as I researched it further, as we got more documents under the Freedom of Information Act, that became quite apparent.

Pritikin: Focusing now on the Downwinders’ stories themselves, do you recall what the first story was that you wrote about the Downwinders?

Steele: The first major story after I had done this research, interviewed them all, and tried to get comment from various Department of Energy people, including Dr. Bustad, was in July of 1985.

Page one, it shows Tom Bailie standing in his cornfield. You can see the Hanford reactors in the background. It was titled, “Downwinders Living with Fear.” It showed the Andrzejewskis with their death map, working at their kitchen table with a Whoops [WPPSS] reactor warning radio on their table. When Whoops was built, they provided warning radios for people living within a certain radius. But of course, at the time that the Hanford emissions happened, there was no warning.

Anyway, it had that. It had photos of other farmers from Tom Bailie’s neighborhood. I did a sidebar called, “The Night the Little Demons Were Born,” which was specifically on the sheep deaths in that area. That was the first time that any of those farmers, just neighboring Hanford, had ever gone public with these stories. It had a pretty big effect, the story.

Yeah. Here’s the picture of Tom Bailie in the field. And then, on the back is John Weinberger, one of the farmers the night the little demons were born, which I think this story for farm families had the most impact of all.

These are the Andrzejewski with their death map, which we reproduced, and then they’re just sitting around their table talking about this subject.

Pritikin: After this story came out and got a lot of attention, did Hanford workers begin to contact you as well?

Steele: Yes. I did. I got more stories. There were very few concerns about the commercial nuclear power plant, Whoops, but there was a lot of concern about the safety of the restarted old plants like PUREX. A few workers began to speak out, although it was quite risky for them to have their names out in public. Many of them who wanted to speak, at that point, wanted to speak anonymously.

Pritikin: What did you do with these reports that are coming in? What could you do with them?

Steele: Well, they added to the narrative. We’d had this official story from Hanford, from Richland, from the Tri-Cities. It had been a kind of a triumphalist story: “We built the bombs,” which is true. “They helped end the war. They were patriotic. We did our job. We were the greatest generation.” But we’d never heard the back story before, that there might’ve been people and animals exposed offsite, and that current workers might also be subject to all kinds of hazards working onsite.

The next insight into what actually happened didn’t come until—in the fall, after the story of the Tom Bailie’s neighbors, we started to compile a request for a major Freedom of Information Act request on what had happened at Hanford. Because none of this was known. They said, “Well, we never studied any of these people because we wouldn’t expect to see anything.” Well, we found out, we wanted to know whether that was accurate or not. We didn’t know the scope of the story, so we wanted to know.

When we asked about early documents from the ’40, ‘50s, and ‘60s, many of them were still classified. That was just stunning. It was stunning to me even for the Basalt Waste Isolation Project stories, because if you didn’t know the back story of environmental contamination, how could you decide that the site was safe for a brand new, major nuclear waste disposal site? There were two things going on at the same time. 

What we felt we needed to do, since many of the documents were still classified—and we had to go into court to fight for this, too. They didn’t just come. But we filed our FOIA request, Freedom of Information Act, which was shortened to FOIA, and so did the Environmental Policy Institute of Washington, D.C. and HEAL, the Hanford Education Action League.

When we went into court, the government argued that, “We can’t release these, because it might give away the secret of the bomb.”

We said, “We’re not asking for the details of how you make a bomb. We’re asking for the environmental monitoring reports, which showed whether or not there were offsite releases or accidents onsite.” That was the scope, and we asked for from the beginning of the plants in the mid-40s up until the current time. It was a massive request.

But by that time, because of what was going on with PUREX and because of the stories on Tom Bailie’s neighbors, and because of what the Seattle Times had done with the safety of PUREX, there was mounting public pressure to release these documents. And so, six months later, in February of 1986, they actually released them.

Pritikin: Can you tell us about the event when Michael Lawrence showed up, and what did he say?

Steele: Yeah. Michael Lawrence was the site manager at Hanford, a very young, slim, kind of good-looking, very serious Department of Energy official. He hadn’t really wanted to release the documents, but it wasn’t his decision. It was made in headquarters, Energy Department headquarters.

But they had a big press conference, of course. It was really crowded. They had these piles of 15,000 pages of documents, and it was like, “Here!” We asked, “Well, what conclusions have you drawn?”

He started out saying, “Operations have been really, really safe since 1970, and we’re proud of what we’ve done,” and everything.

Of course, the obvious next question was, “Well, what about the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s?”

He said, “I’m not going to answer that question. I’m going to leave it for the public to decide.” Someone told me that he had this idea that if he just dumped them on the press, the press would be too lazy to read them. People wouldn’t go through them. I don’t know why he would think that. But because, of course, we immediately, frantically started to go through them.

Pritikin: Tell us about that experience, going through all these old documents, some of which were probably fairly indecipherable.

Steele: Yeah. Of course, we immediately started going through them when we still down there, and then we off to our respective newsrooms and things to look further. But I just thought, logically, it would be good to start at the beginning with the ‘40s. We didn’t know at the time what even the emission figures meant.

But all of a sudden, we were going along, along, Tim Connor from the Hanford Education Action Leagues—we were sitting around a big table. He and I didn’t usually work together—he’s an activist; I’m a journalist—but we were there in Richland.

He said, “Take a look at this.” It was December 19, 1949 quarterly monitoring report called the “Green Run.” It wasn’t called the “Green Run.” It was called the “Dissolution of Fuel at Dispersal,” I can’t remember the exact title. But when we looked inside, there was this graphic of this huge plume of radioactive iodine that had spread throughout Richland, where the scientists lived. Usually the dispersion stacks, the 200-foot-tall stacks, would disperse it away from the nuclear reservation. But the radiation fell on the reservation. It had plastered Walla Walla. It had spread all the way to Spokane. It was stunning.

I broke that story, I was able to get it first. Again it was just one more thing—their prior assurances of their safety just were not holding up in these documents. When we started to analyze them, it showed that the releases were the largest that had ever been reported, at least to that point in the United States. This was a huge story, not just a few farmers, you know, around Ringgold [Washington] and Mesa [Washington].

Pritikin: It sounds like the story was growing before your eyes, just like a mushroom cloud.

Steele: Absolutely. It certainly growing. It took us seven years to get more documents on the Green Run. The second batch of documents—which, again, my newspaper had to go into court to fight for—the second batch showed that the Air Force had run planes, had been flying over this plume and tracking where it went.

The Oregonian did a very good story. They tracked down Carl Gamertsfelder, who was one of the original AEC people involved in this experiment. He told them that the reason was they were trying to assume what the Soviet Union would be doing in letting out hot, or uncooled fuel, because they were in a rush to catch up with us to make nuclear weapons. I also interviewed him, and he said the same thing to me.

We didn’t get the documents, the full set of documents, for about seven years. We just kept getting more and more. The subsequent documents showed that it spread even farther than the first documents had said, that there was a rainout in Walla Walla that day, and so it fell right down on fields. Even though it was December, that’s kind of a banana belt. There were cows on grass at that time in certain parts of our region. It became a more and more serious story.

Pritikin: Did you happen to interview anyone who had lived in Walla Walla during that time either then or later? Any Downwinders that had been exposed at that time?

Steele: I interviewed June Casey. Several people called me and said, “I was there at this time.” But June Casey had a pretty scary story. She had just transferred to Whitman College, and she was a sophomore. She was there during the Green Run, and that was her first semester at Whitman.

When she went home—she was from Oregon; Umatilla, I believe—she went home for Christmas. She was just exhausted. She could hardly get out of bed. And then, her hair started falling out in huge clumps. She had long curly brown hair, and it just started and it never grew back. She didn’t know what it could be. It was like a mystery, a medical mystery. Her parents, of course, were just really seriously concerned for her.

She didn’t know about the Green Run until she read a story like in 1988. It was like two years after the original reporting. But she lived in Oakland, California, so she saw a follow-up story on the Green Run. And, finally, she thought, “Maybe this is what happened to me.” It was dramatic.

I interviewed other people who said the same thing. “I was there, and this is what happened.” And then, of course, people in Spokane were shocked that it came to Spokane, especially since a colleague of mine, Becky Nappi, had done a story fairly recently after that, about unexplained baby deaths. There was a cemetery in Spokane, and we couldn’t prove any connection. But it was heavy radiation, and then a spate of baby deaths.

Pritikin: When did this increase in baby deaths occur? Was it around 1949?

Steele: It was. It was the ‘50s, when women would’ve been pregnant. And ’51, ’52, where later we found out there were also some pretty large Hanford releases.

Pritikin: During the time you were doing this reporting and more information was coming out, did you get any threats from anywhere for your reporting? Were you threatened?

Steele: Actually, I did get angry calls just at work from people who said, “I’m a Hanford worker, and you’re not patriotic, you know. You’re not on our side.”

But the ones that disturbed me, though, more than that were calls to my children. I had two young girls at that time, and so they were on the receiving end, a couple of really ugly calls at home. “Do you want your mommy to die?” kind of calls, you know. I explained to them that it’s a cowardly way to lash out at people, and it’s just words. But still, it’s very upsetting that someone would do that to a child.

Pritikin: Yes. I’m sorry to hear that.

Steele: Yeah.

Pritikin: I want to focus now on the litigation, otherwise known as the “In Re Hanford Nuclear Reservation Litigation.”

Steele: Okay.

Pritikin: Or “In Re Hanford.” Did you and your paper attempt to get the Pigford Report unsealed? Can you tell us what the Pigford Report was, and then did you attempt to get it unsealed?

Steele: We did. Of course, the Downwinders’ case had filed started in ’90, ’91, 1990. What happened, there was a sequence here, because the documents came out in ’86, all this reporting was done on what the documents showed. In 1990, the government, the Energy Department— James Watkins was the Energy Secretary at the time—held a conference in Washington, D.C. He said, “We know that the Hanford releases were large enough to have put peoples’ health at risk, so we have to go back and find out what happened to these people.”

That was the beginning of the major studies: the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction [HEDR] and the Hanford Thyroid Disease study that looked into what might’ve happened to the Downwinders. That was the government’s first admission that Hanford emissions might’ve caused harm.

Just after that, 1990, the first lawsuits were filed. Thomas Pigford was a prominent nuclear engineer at Berkeley, agreed to by both sides in the litigation, the plaintiffs for the Downwinders and the lawyers for the nuclear contractors. He wrote a report in Judge [Alan] McDonald’s courtroom—for Judge McDonald, rather, and for both sides—criticizing the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction dose estimates. He said the report had not been done correctly, and that it was underestimating the doses to Downwinders. If that happened, it could have an adverse outcome eventually for the Downwinders.

It was an important report. But what Judge McDonald did in 1995, after it had been produced, is seal it. So, we couldn’t see it. I can’t say who it was, but one of the attorneys in the Hanford litigation leaked me a copy of it, read it to me over the phone. They couldn’t actually produce the written document, but they read it to me over the phone.

I was able then to call Thomas Pigford, talk to him about it, He said he didn’t know it was under seal. So, he couldn’t talk about it in great detail, but he was surprised that it was under seal.

If the Pigford Report recommendations were correct, it would’ve led to the Hanford thyroid dose outcomes, studies’ outcomes, being less than expected several years later. It was an interesting moment in the trial with Judge McDonald.

Pritikin: Was there an attempt made by the plaintiffs’ attorneys to have the Pigford Report unsealed?

Steele: Yes. They did try to get it unsealed. We went to court, too, the newspaper, to try to get it unsealed. We were unsuccessful. Judge McDonald just said that it would be unsealed eventually, and that’s how it was left.

Pritikin: Okay. Now, there were two judges in this litigation, Judge McDonald and then Judge [William] Nielsen. Do you have any impressions you’d like to share about either of those judges? How they functioned?

Steele: They were very different people. They were both Republicans, appointed by Republican presidents. Alan McDonald was appointed by Ronald Reagan, and William Fremming Nielsen was appointed by George H. W. Bush. But they couldn’t be more different in their personalities.

From my observation, and I covered a lot of the Hanford trial, McDonald was pretty hostile to the Downwinders. He dismissed a huge chunk of the plaintiffs from the case, and was overturned by the 9th Circuit, and so many of them came back into the case. He was combative. His courtroom demeanor was kind of condescending.

Even in his judgement—let me see, let me try to find this, if I can. Excuse me here for a minute. This is October 1998. This is just after he had decided to drop over 2,000 Downwinders from the case. The plaintiffs’ attorneys had asked for a reassessment of that. He gave a second order denying their motion to alter or amend his judgement.

This is kind of Judge McDonald sort of synthesized, He said, “This court found the vast majority of plaintiffs’ scientific evidence as unreliable and/or irrelevant to the factual determination which a jury must make. Because of the complexity of this evidence, even the most astute jury upon hearing it could reach the erroneous conclusion that Hanford emissions were a cause, in fact, of an individual’s disease.”

He was telegraphing his opposition to the entire plaintiffs’ side of the case by those kind of comments. Those were not the only similar comments that he made during the case of the trial, by any means. 

Pritikin: Why is it that there was a new judge took over the case?

Steele: That’s a very interesting story. One of the plaintiff’s attorneys, Tom Foulds—this would be 1998, after McDonald had dismissed nearly half of the plaintiffs from the case. Tom Foulds got interested in the judge’s landholdings around Hanford. Because in some of my stories and other stories, he had been described as a multi-millionaire, agribusiness man. He wasn’t just a federal judge. He also had vast landholdings.

Foulds went to several of the courthouses where the the land records are kept around Hanford, and he found out that McDonald and his company had been buying up land. This is the very time when he’s dismissing the Downwinders’ cases. In order to get that land, McDonald had to certify that the land was free from any form of contamination, including radiation contamination. This is to get a federal loan.

When Foulds found that, he thought it was a profound conflict of interest: that this judge is certifying that Hanford land, just north of where Tom Bailie and his neighbors live, is totally free of radiation contamination, while adjudicating this case, was a major conflict of interest.

In December of 2002, he filed a motion for recusal with the 9th Circuit Court as well as the court in Spokane. Three months later, McDonald stepped down. He said he hadn’t done anything wrong, but he could see how it would be used against him in an appeal. He also attacked Tom Foulds, the attorney, for doing this to him, basically.

That brought in a second judge in 2003, William Fremming Nielsen.

Pritikin: There was a study called the “Hanford Thyroid Disease Study.”

Steele: Yes.

Pritikin: It was ongoing at the same time as the litigation, more or less.

Steele: Right.

Pritikin: What are your thoughts about that study finding “no health harm” from Hanford’s I-131 [iodine-131]. How do you think that happened?

Steele: This was done by the Fred Hutchinson Center in Seattle. Very prominent people, scientists, working on this study. But strange things happened. It could be—I don’t know that for a fact—but it could be as a result of what Thomas Pigford said about the HEDR doses being underestimated. But the Thyroid Disease Study was using the Hanford HEDR doses. If they were underestimating the doses, then the result would be a weak or no finding of causation in an epidemiological study.

That’s exactly what happened. The Fred Hutchinson people said they were surprised by the result, that they didn’t expect that. They thought they were going to find a more robust association, but they didn’t.

But one thing they didn’t tell the public and were not forthcoming about at all, I didn’t think—and this came out later when the National Academy of Sciences [NAS] reviewed the report—is that their study lacked the statistical power to come to any conclusion. My feeling was that should’ve been the message. “We couldn’t answer the question.” But instead, they came out with a really over-hyped statement of, “There’s no connection between Hanford and an individual’s doses.” Although, they were careful to say that doesn’t mean that any one individual couldn’t have gotten a cancer from thyroid.

But they went further. They said, “Well, everyone in the region should be reassured, because of our study.” That was just hubris. They shouldn’t have been reassured by a weak study that was possibly based on biased data.

I think the Downwinders were right to be furious about that, because there was a big, big pushback to that result. They were also grilled in Spokane when the National Academy came and released its results. They were really grilled at that time by the NAS panel on the statistical weaknesses of their report.

Pritikin: How did these results of the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study vary from the other studies that have been of low-dose exposure to ionizing radiation, from the Nevada Test Site or Marshall Islands? 

Steele: They were an outlier, The Hanford Site was a total outlier. Chernobyl, the Marshall Islands, and all the other studies, the Nevada Test Site studies, all showed a positive significant correlation. But this one didn’t.

Pritikin: There has been some review after HTBS by independent scientists of the results. What was their conclusion on why the study was different?

Steele: I don’t really know. I don’t really remember that.

Pritikin: I want to talk a little bit about the plaintiffs and the litigation. Were you able to meet very many of the Hanford downwinder plaintiffs? Do you remember any particular stories?

Steele: As I kept covering the trial, obviously, I would see the participants. But I would also see other Downwinder observers who had come. Not everybody could come. The trials was in Spokane. For many people, it was far trip. But many stories stand out.

Deborah Clark was a very, very sad story. As Judge Nielsen had taken over the trial, her thyroid cancer, it was getting worse and worse, and she tried to get an expedited trial in Nielsen’s court. Her lawyer tried to do it. But she was rebuffed in 2010, and she died the next year.

Our Spokesman Review photographer took a picture of her. It’s such a stark photo, because she has this giant hole in her neck. They had to take out her entire voice box, and in order to speak, she had to put her hand on her neck, just to compress her neck in order to speak. She said her grandchildren were afraid of her. It was just a tragedy. She was only 69 years old. The thyroid cancer had spread to her bones, and so she was also in a lot of pain.

The arguments between the lawyers sort of showed such polar opposites. Her lawyer, Richard Eymann, Dick Eymann of Spokane, asked for an expedited trial and a verdict of $20 million because of all the pain, suffering, operations, shortened life, everything she’d had. The lawyer for the defendants, Kevin Van Wart, said $10,000 would be about what they’d give. It was a stunt to bring her up for an earlier trial. The judge did side with the defendants, with the contractors, saying it would be wrong to kind of take her out of order in the case. That was pretty tragic.

She was born in December 1949, the month of the Green Run. Of course, we know that that raised cancer risks for kids, throughout the area. Her sister, Rebecca, who was born in ’51, also developed thyroid cancer and died at age 48. That’s just one of many, many, very, very sad stories out of this trial.

Shannon Rhodes, who was one of the bellwether plaintiffs—it was called “the test,” the test plaintiffs who were chosen to actually have trials—also had thyroid cancer. She went through two trials. She was the bellwether. Her first bellwether trial deadlocked, so it was declared a mistrial.

Then, her second trial in the same year, the jury found for the defendants, said she had not proved that Hanford more likely than not caused her cancer, which was the legal standard that was used in this trial. Which is interesting to me, because in the Nevada Downwinders’ trial, the one that got a second trial, the judge used the weaker standard of likely cause, that the fallout “likely caused” peoples’ cancers. At Hanford it was a stricter standard. “More likely than not” was the standard. And she, according to the jury, didn’t meet that standard.

She was born in Spokane in 1941 and grew up in Colfax [Washington] on a farm. She said she was exposed to emissions during World War II and then right afterwards, the Green Run and the early years of the Cold War. That was another very, very sad case.

Pritikin: Some of the Downwinders that I’ve spoken with have several issues. They have either two types of cancer, or an autoimmune disease and a cancer. Can you comment on that?

Steele: Yes. Wanda Buckner was one. She was also a bellwether. She didn’t get to go forward either. She didn’t get a good result in her claim. She had lots of health problems. When I met her, she was in a wheelchair and very, very low energy, hard to get around, from the autoimmune disease. She had other like nutritional factors that were bothering her.

There seemed to be a range for a lot of these people, these plaintiffs, a whole range of symptoms from, from fatigue, depression, and just general diminished quality of life from what they had experienced.

Pritikin: There were two different major litigations of Downwinders, one being the Nevada Test Site case, the other one the Hanford case.

Steele: Right.

Pritikin: Judge Bruce Jenkins appears to have looked at all the calculations for dose, whether it was defense calculations or plaintiffs’ calculations. Whereas, in the Hanford litigation, they looked at HEDR.

Steele: That’s right.

Pritikin: Can you comment on the different approaches? Could that have disfavored the Hanford Downwinders?

Steele: Oh, yes. I think Judge Bruce Jenkins admirably did a lot of his own work. Unfortunately, really tragically, they never got a chance to have a second trial down there. But he did all the groundwork, laid out all the groundwork, to look at the two conflicting sets of doses.

That didn’t happen at Hanford. The Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction project, for all of its problems—and there were some other problems I’ll mention in a just a second about it, that really cast doubt on it—they were pushed by the defense. But they were also stipulated to by the plaintiffs’ attorneys for use in the bellwether trials, which means these doses that might have underestimated, that led to the weak results in the thyroid dose case, were agreed to by everybody. Except one of the attorneys, Tom Foulds, who said he didn’t agree and he refused to sign stipulation. Because Tom Foulds had done his own very detailed analysis of what had happened. He just didn’t agree with that case.

But there was another reason that came out in discovery, largely through Tom Foulds’ work about HEDR, which was very important. HEDR had been promised—this big dose reconstruction project had been promised to the public of the Northwest that it would be the gold standard of science, that it would be completely unbiased, just the best science ever.

It turns out in documents that Tom Foulds obtained for the trial that the Justice Department, main Justice, and lawyers for the Department of Energy, as soon as the lawsuits were filed in 1990, started to insist that their own lawyers, their own legal staff, would sit in on the HEDR meetings, at least some of them—we don’t know how many, at least some of them—because of their interest in using HEDR as litigation defense. Now, that is just the opposite of unbiased, gold-standard science.

Pritikin: Who conducted the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction project for the first ten or so years? Was it under the control of the Department of Energy?

Steele: There was an independent panel for a while. But most of it was conducted by the Department of Energy. And John Till, who is a nuclear scientist, was in charge.

It was a Department of Energy study, and that’s not what the States of Washington and Oregon had originally wanted. They had wanted a study completely divorced from the Energy Department because they knew at least some of the back story of what had happened in some of these other stories, other cases, especially down in Nevada.

Pritikin: But eventually, the study was transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, correct? To CDC [Center for Disease Control]?

Steele: Yes. The CDC eventually got involved, yes. That’s correct, right.

Pritikin: Now, this is a broad, open question, a wide-open question. Give us your thoughts on the outcome of the Hanford Downwinder litigation, and what you feel about it since you’ve covered it for so many years and known so many of the plaintiffs and what their lives were like.

Steele: I found it to be very sad and kind of indictment of our judicial system, frankly. This took 25 years. That’s a quarter of a century. This litigation, which in itself is exceptionally long. But it meant the people who were already sick were dying along the way. Of course, their estates were still in the case, but it just it spun out for so long.

The dynamic of having all of the legal costs of the Hanford contractors paid for, no questions asked, by the federal government, which was part of an indemnification agreement that went back to the Manhattan Project. It made sense in those days, because here DuPont and then GE [General Electric] were asked to come, DuPont to build the plants, GE to operate them. They’d never scaled up a nuclear plant to this level for building brand-new weapons. These corporations wanted to be indemnified and they wanted all their legal costs as part of that indemnification. That did make sense.

But it got perverted to massive expenditures of money and delays on the defendants’ side. In a normal trial, you have two sides. Both have a finite amount of money. And so there’s pressure as you’re running out of money and as the months and years go on to settle, or do something or resolve the case at a jury or something. Get a trial date and, and then go to that trial date and then have a resolution.

In this case, it just went on and on and on. Every decision that went in favor of the plaintiffs was appealed up to the 9th Circuit. The plaintiffs also appealed on occasion. But it was way too lengthy a process. And then, it ended on a very irresolute note for most of the Downwinders, who never had their chances, really, to tell their story at trial.

Also, in a peculiar way, although it was probably the right decision, Judge Nielsen had ruled early on when he took over the trial that Hanford was an ultra-hazardous activity. That meant that the plaintiffs didn’t have to prove that Hanford was a hazardous place. But in a way, it took the narrative away. It all became a case about strange mathematical formulas about dose and response, instead of the story of how peoples’ lives had been affected, or they hadn’t been told, had all this done in secrecy to them, and then their suffering from that point on.

It doesn’t mean that every claim was valid. But on the other hand, it meant that what we’re supposed to get to at the end—I’m not a lawyer, I’m a reporter—but what I always thought in trials should be the outcome is some measure of justice. At the end, we had secret settlements and no government apology. To me, that was not a good outcome. 

Pritikin: Secret settlements, although the money for the settlements came out of public funds?

Steele: That’s correct. I think that was wrong. The settlements should not have been confidential.

Pritikin: Do you feel that a solution such as a no-cause—a no-fault sort of compensation program like has been created for the Nevada Test Site Downwinders, the radiation exposure compensation, might be applicable to a situation like Hanford in the future? Or do you feel that going through the litigation again, if there’s another group like us, would be—

Steele: I thought, actually, that the Hanford Downwinders should’ve been treated the way the Hanford nuclear workers were treated. For many, many years, Congress fought any compensation schemes for either workers or Downwinders in Nevada or Hanford or anywhere else. But eventually, a compensation scheme of, I think in most cases, $150,000 per worker, if you had been working in certain places, got certain doses at certain times. Admittedly, it might’ve been a little easier, because they were monitoring workers to establish a good, a good dose level.

But on the other hand, if they had just done that, if they had just taken the strongest Downwinder claims and say, “Here’s your compensation range for that estimated dose,” that would’ve gone a long way. It would’ve avoided these years of trial and suffering for people. It would’ve avoided, perhaps, most of the $80 million that we spent on lawyers for the contractors. Even if that money had been divided up in compensation scheme, it would’ve led to more justice than the way this thing came out.

Pritikin: In fact, the list of recognized radiogenic disease for workers perhaps could’ve have been applied to Downwinders.

Steele: Exactly. Yes.

Pritikin: And the Hanford exposed workers have a special exposure cohort, so they don’t have to show their dose.

Steele: Right.

Pritikin: If they’re have one of the diseases that are listed.

Steele: Right.

Pritikin: Perhaps that would be a different approach.

Steele: Yeah.

Pritikin: Last question I had here was your thoughts on what we as a country can learn from the Hanford Downwinder experience—a broad, open question.

Steele: We’re talking again about a renewed arms race, at least under our current president. I’m not sure that’s going to happen. But if we ever do have another nuclear arms race, we should have checks and balances. We have checks and balances in every other area of our government, and we should have one in the nuclear enterprise. We should have inspections and information being public, not having this terrible arrogance of at least of the old Atomic Energy Commission.

Somehow, stories to me really resonate. One of the stories from Stewart Udall’s The Myths of August illustrate this perfectly, where one of the high-level Atomic Energy Commissioners had a pregnant daughter-in-law and a son who working as a park ranger in Utah. He knew that the big dirty Upshot Knothole tests were coming. He paid for his pregnant daughter-in-law and her husband to get on a plane and leave Utah while the tests were going on, while every other family was exposed. That’s outrageous. We have to avoid that, if we ever do this again.