HANFORD REACH > Oral Histories


As I was told, “the truth will set you free.” And that's the reason why things are so bad here; it's always, “Keep quiet; let it happen.” Nobody really wants to talk about the issues at hand. We don't want to make waves… This is a good place to live. Every place, you have your drawbacks.

That stuff out there, that's a big drawback. It’s almost like Chernobyl: when the reactor exploded, it went into the air; it killed the animals, the fish, and consequently, it killed the people.

I had heard back years ago that if you drank milk in the '50s… They took a test of how many people ended up with cancer. If you ate so many fish per week: how many people ended up having cancer. So they do a survey, to try to find this information out. Well, the majority of the Black people, we didn't do the survey, because we didn’t know nothing about it.

I heard about it all later on the radio; I didn't know anything about the survey. But I knew a lot of people that had cancer. And we didn't know where it came from.

We came here in 1946. I was just a year old. I was born in Vancouver, Washington right at the end of the war, in 1945. And my mom moved up here; she went to work in the Hanford cafeteria. It wasn’t out on what was called “the site,” but she worked in the cafeteria that supported Hanford.

When she died she was ninety years old, and she didn’t have cancer at all. But myself, I had three tests in a period of nine years, and every one of them had the cancer cell in it. Just the last one, it was cancer free. But the next, in another six to ten years: they said that may have the cell back in it.

So, I know that it didn't just pop up out of thin air; it came from what I've been ingesting into my body. So it kind of scares me. Being here, dependent on the water and so forth, dependent on Hanford… It’s a scary situation we’re living in. So you kind of wing it: you do the best that you can.

By the time I was five years old, I started going to kindergarten. It was an integrated school, all Caucasian kids, a few Black kids. And I didn't really see a lot of prejudice in the teaching in 1946-1950. But this is the thing: you knew how to stay in your place. Okay? If you went to the store, everybody was watching you. A person would follow you...

I bought a cabbage, a head of cabbage. And the green leaves, the outer leaves they take off and they throw away, I took those and I put them in the bottom of the bag and I put a cabbage in the bag on the top of them. And when I got to the check-stand the guy takes the head of cabbage out of the bag, now, instead of just weighing it all, and went through the leaves to see if there was anything I had stolen. I didn’t know what he was doing. I just stood there looking at him. And I’m like, "Well why’s he doing that?" And when he got through he put the head back in there and weighed it… And I paid for my groceries and stuff and left. And I didn’t understand what he was doing. But this was part of what was happening as we were growing up. You'd see prejudice all the time, but I wasn't taught to be prejudiced, so I really didn't recognize a lot of it that was happening to us, in the community.

All the Black people that worked here, they lived in East Pasco. This was during the '40s, '50s, '60s. And urban renewal came in with a relocation project that the government had set up. And all of that land was owned by Black people, and accessed to the river. On the west side was the train tracks. And they said, “This land is not really worth anything, because of the railroad; you’re listening to the train whistles.” But that’s not true. Any land next to commerce is going to be worth its weight in gold. They bought it for a little of nothing. And once when they bought your property you had to relocate.

They built this housing project. And the housing project probably inhabited about a thousand people, say. Well that thousand people that was living in little houses moved into this housing project, and they ended up leaving. A lot of them left, moved away from the area. They dispersed, into different areas.

Hanford was good for Black people working out there even though, you know, you got all the dirty jobs. You went in at the entry level, as a janitor. And the majority stayed in that position until they got ready to retire, or to leave the Hanford area.

My girlfriend worked out there. When she would come home, she would cry, because her boss wasn’t treating her right. One of the things that she found out: they gave her a higher position, but they didn't give her the money. She didn't know that they gave her the position until years later. She went to her supervisor about it; he says, “Well we gave you the promotion, but we didn't give you the money.”

And she told me they gave her a one percent raise. She says, “Aubrey, I was so mad I looked at my boss and I said “Really? You can keep that one percent. Because that's nothing.”

She worked out there for thirty years, and she said, I just can’t do it no more. When she filed a grievance, went and got a lawyer, was trying to fight them, and what they said is that the statute of limitations had run out, she said, “I can’t do it no more.” And she retired. They make it hard for you… It’s just bad that you have to go through all of that, in order to maintain a job so that you can have just a mediocre life.

They put that “vitrification plant” in to take that stuff out there and turn it into glass. Well where you gonna put it when you get through doing that? If you put it in the ground, it’s going to come back to the surface, eventually. You can't burn it up into thin air. It’s going to be there. You bury it in the ground: if you have a flood, it gets into the water... It gets into the people eventually. It’s going to get into the water.

Before anyone started checking the groundwater and stuff like that, no one really knew. Scientists knew, but they were saying, “We can’t do anything about this here, we’ve just got to let it go ahead and happen, and see what plays out...”

So I don't fish for the salmon, and I really don't fish in the Columbia River anymore. And North West of Sacajawea Park, I don’t fish that area. I fish off of the Snake River. The radiation isn’t up there… Unless they took it up there and dumped it. But it’s definitely in the Columbia River.

See... I was raised up here, so I know the difference. It’s not what I heard; it’s about what I’m seeing: the change that has occurred. I used to hunt a lot. I look, and I say, "Where are all the animals? What happened to them?" The animals are dying. They’ve got to be; they're not there. And I know we didn't kill them all. I remember when we used to eat rabbits that was out there at the Hanford Area, and then they said, “Well now, don’t eat any of those rabbits out there; they’ve got radiation in them.” And the deer: they used to hunt a lot of deer out there. And they quit hunting them.

A lot of the [wildlife] that’s now out there, they bring it into the Area, reintroduce it into the Reach. And so it’s all “cleaned up.” Well if it’s up above where the radiation is releasing into the groundwater, that’s fine. But anything that's below it… That water is going south, it's not going north.

So many people I knew, they never said anything about what was out there. They were just glad to have a job, and went to work every day. But then they died. I never knew of their suffering. They didn't say, “Hey man, I’ve got cancer, man, I’m afraid I’m gonna die.” They just died of cancer. We didn’t think, "Where did the cancer come from... He worked out in the Area for years…"

A friend of mine, John Mitchell to speak his name: he’s dead now, from cancer. He worked out there; he was in the beryllium explosion back in the '50s. And it was about 2014 before he got paid for it. He went to the doctor; they kept saying, “Well, we don't have enough information yet.” And he was almost dead, before they paid him. By the time that you do get paid, do your family members get paid less, because you’re dead, or get the full amount of money? I don't know, because I've never researched it, because I didn’t work there. But I know the government is always trying to save money.

One of my lady friends, she came up here, worked out at Hanford, and she ended up getting cancer. She came to the house one day, and she was crying. They were trying to say, “You got this before you came here.” And she was a scientist. Well, she was able to prove that the cancer that she had gotten did come from out there.

Her husband, at the same time, got throat cancer. And he didn’t die, but he lost his voice. And from that treatment, all his neck was just raw, it was pink, and it was all burned up. See: they was trying to keep it hid; they wouldn't say anything about it. And so nobody really knew. She would always say as a joke, “I’m waiting on my check,” for the money that she was going to get. “I’m waiting on my check.” I don't know if she ever got a check. But she was able to fight it. The type of cancer that she had, it came from here. She lived long enough for them to take her back to Texas where she came from, and she died.

My sister worked out there. And she ended up with ovarian cysts. And they started sending letters from Hanford: if anyone that lived out there had ovarian cysts, to get in contact with this number. Well my sister no longer lived here; if they hadn’t had my address to send it to, she would have never known. And, I never heard her say anything about getting compensated.

Beulah Green, she worked out there for years and she had cancer in her neck. She went to the doctor here and he told her, “It’s not cancer.” Her adopted daughter lived in California. She went to Stanford, and they told her that she had cancer. They did radiation treatment on her, and then it went into its “rest.” And I talked to her this morning. She worked out there for years, so I said, “Well Beulah, did you get any money from that?” She said, “They told me that I wasn't working in the part of the Area where there was any radiation that would do this; I didn’t get any of it.” I don't know what parameters they use… And I say: "But where did it come from?" You know?

The Black people was the last ones to know that the government was paying monies for injuries received from working out there with radiation. As we know, cancer is devastating to the body; it ravages everything that you have. I know a lot of people that have it. And a few of them got paid for it. But I know a whole lot of them that died from it, didn't get anything from it. There was no outreach to the African American communities that I know of, as far as getting paid. To me, it seemed like they were trying their level best not to pay you, versus to pay you for your pain and your suffering.

And that’s, you know, to me, it's the prejudiced part of it. There’s no sense in trying to sugarcoat it and say that it don’t happen, because it does. And you know, it’s like, what on earth is in your mind to say that one person's worth is more than another person’s worth. A human life is a human life… My god, people, wake up.

It hurts me to my heart that our government knows there’s something bad for you, and then tries to persuade you to be in denial. That has bothered me for a long time. I know it’s bigger, what it really is; no one lets the people know, because of mass panic. We won't know until the situation gets completely out of hand, and that’s when it’s too late.

In the Hanford Area, if it don't affect you, then your eyes are closed, and you don’t know nothing about it. They are in denial. They are in denial in the whole United States of America, and probably the world. But in this city: they are in Denial. And so it just continues to perpetuate itself...