Hanford Reach: In The Atomic Field > Oral Histories

My name is John Swain. I worked at Hanford for twenty-three years; I was at the tank farms for thirteen of my years. I was a chemical operator, a nuclear process operator: we monitored tanks.

Throughout my career, we always went to meetings about safety, and they said nothing was out there that could hurt you. And we believed them... We believed them. We put faith in our departments, because we were all working together, as a team.



So I got put on the retrieval team. My working partner came down; we were the only ones in the farms at that time.

All of a sudden, something hit me and I just shook. And my partner was about twenty-five feet away, and I asked my guy, I says, “Did you smell anything, different?” He says, “No, why?” I says, “Well, I’m going to get up, and take a walk…” And so I got up, and wham: I got it again. And all of a sudden I felt nauseous and queasy.

I went and told my boss; they told me to report to my personal doctor. So I went home, made that call to the doctor. Later on that morning, my boss’s boss called me up at home and asked me when I was going to come back to work. Because there was nothing out there that hurt me… That I had a pre-existing condition… Well, right then and there I knew that I was in trouble. So I went to my doctor, and he wrote a restriction out for me.

They didn't like that restriction he wrote, because it said “do not expose John to any more vapors like this.” They didn't like that. They were trying to put me into the farms again.

And I was having a hard time breathing at that time. I couldn’t walk thirty feet without being out of breath. So I went up to Harborview Hospital, I talked to the doctors up there, and they ran a lung capacity test on me. I was down forty-five percent of my lung capacity. They wanted to know if I knew what I was exposed to. I said, “I don't know.” They said, “Well, it's like this, John: I don't know if you'd be as lucky if you got another exposure like this.”

So I come back from Harborview and the middle boss comes up to me and says, “John, we didn't do an accident report.” And he's got one all signed. And they predated some stuff; he wants me to predate it. And I says, “No.”

He still wanted to get me into the farms again. “John, you had a preexisting condition; there was nothing out there.” They were bound and determined to get me into the field, you know? Because there was “nothing out there.”



They said I had a preexisting condition. When I went to my doctor, they would misprint the year: instead of 2004: 2003. So therefore I had a preexisting condition. They go, “Well there’s the date.”

They had stuff from the medical facility, from the doctor’s note, that said that I’d taken blood pressure medicine, which I never did… I had to go back and correct that stuff. I went straight to wherever the mistakes were, and made them correct them. They looked for anything and everything to discredit my claim. So not only is the company doing their part, you got to go against the doctors out there, and against the “third-party.” And too many people out there trust the facility’s doctors.

And you know, I had to fight them through the state. I had to report to the state, cause they report to the state. And so I'd have to call the head guy up there to tell him my side. And DOE was always there, when we had meetings with them.



They took me in by ambulance three more times, down with “episodes.” One time, I was walking down the hallway, and I just, it was like, I must've hit something, because I bounced off the wall. The paramedics came; my blood pressure was one hundred seventy over one hundred twenty. So off to the hospital I go again… Another time, same thing: blacking out… I was sitting there months after the exposure, and would eat a good meal, and I could taste the tanks coming up. I had pains on my left side, all the time. Once I had pains, it felt like lightning bolts, going across my chest.

I have three diagnoses: I have RADS, for my lungs; I have toxic encephalopathy that took half my brain; I have neuropathy in my lower extremities. And I never talked like this, before. I have to close my eyes, to get it out. I have to work…



So there's people out there still hurt with the diseases that I've been diagnosed with. Because I know the symptoms. Out there, if they did the proper testing for these people, if they really cared about them, there would be a lot more injuries then what they say.

There was denial in the newspaper of ever having anybody hurt. I took my notebook to the Herald and showed it to them in black and white. They quit putting exposures in the newspaper; they couldn’t say there's nothing out there that has harmed people. That was always their line… “Well, nobody's ever been hurt, and there's nobody out there with toxic encephalopathy.”

It's a controlled community, because [Hanford] donates so much. And it's part of agreements when they get a contract that they donate back to the cities. They put out millions of dollars.

There are lot of good people, hard-working people that have got exposed out there. You know it’s hard for us to understand the company that says the workers are the nucleus of the company, but yet when you get hurt, they throw you to the gutter. They don't care. Out there: you're either on this side or that side. There’s no middle-walkers, you know? But, well: I was born and raised here. I'm not leaving.



So mercury vaporizes at seventy degrees; the water they shoot in there is ninety degrees. They don't know when they’re going to hit a spot of mercury. Or these bubbles of gases: the pockets of gases in the sludge, they don't know when they’re going to hit that.

When they first started with radiation, they didn't have a clue, right? And so as decades go by, they get better and better and better… And they have a pretty good handle on it... Well: except for tumbleweeds and things like that, that spread it all over… Radiation, they got a pretty good handle on that, okay? But vapors: this vapor stuff, they don't have a clue. They’re clueless.



They still have tumbleweeds that are very radioactive: their roots. We’ve had to clean them up, around the outside of your so-called “safety barriers,” cyclone fences that stop everything, which… They don't. They don't stop your vapors, or your radiation.

Some of the animals out there, the rabbits: very hot, very hot… They used to have some ponds out there that, the ducks: they go and shoot them all, because of the high radiation.

It’s like the miners, with them canaries... They’re treating the workers like those miners... Like canaries...