Government Reveals Oak Ridge Mercury Releases Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Controversy erupted after the U.S. Department of Energy declassified a 1977 report that Oak Ridge National Laboratory had lost approximately 2.4 million pounds of mercury into local streams between 1950 and 1977.

Summary of Event

On May 17, 1983, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) made public a 1977 study of mercury releases from the Oak Ridge Reservation, one of the DOE’s seventeen nuclear weapons production sites. The study, which remained partially classified, reported that approximately 2.4 million pounds of mercury were released from the reservation between 1950 and 1977. Federal officials, however, could not account for 1.9 million pounds of the released mercury. The DOE kept the study results internal for six years until forced to disclose the results under the Freedom of Information Act of 1967. Freedom of Information Act (1967) Oak Ridge National Laboratory Ecological disasters Disasters;mercury contamination Mercury poisoning Department of Energy, U.S.;Oak Ridge National Laboratory [kw]Government Reveals Oak Ridge Mercury Releases (May 17, 1983) [kw]Oak Ridge Mercury Releases, Government Reveals (May 17, 1983) [kw]Mercury Releases, Government Reveals Oak Ridge (May 17, 1983) Oak Ridge National Laboratory Ecological disasters Disasters;mercury contamination Mercury poisoning Department of Energy, U.S.;Oak Ridge National Laboratory [g]North America;May 17, 1983: Government Reveals Oak Ridge Mercury Releases[05180] [g]United States;May 17, 1983: Government Reveals Oak Ridge Mercury Releases[05180] [c]Disasters;May 17, 1983: Government Reveals Oak Ridge Mercury Releases[05180] [c]Environmental issues;May 17, 1983: Government Reveals Oak Ridge Mercury Releases[05180] Groves, Leslie Richard Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;environmental policy Gore, Al

The Oak Ridge Reservation is in eastern Tennessee, eighteen miles northwest of Knoxville. Approximately 680,000 people live within a fifty-mile radius of the 37,000-acre reservation. The reservation, which was built over four tributaries of the Clinch River, includes three large facilities: the gaseous diffusion plant, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Y-12 weapons production plant. Originally created to develop the first nuclear bomb, the Oak Ridge Reservation has remained active in the development of weapons and technology.

In the 1950’s, James McLaren McLaren, James headed a team of scientists and engineers that established a lithium separation plant at Oak Ridge. Massive amounts of mercury were required in the separation process, so the government quickly bought most of the mercury in the world and sent it to Oak Ridge. According to workers, mercury escaped the pipes regularly and showered on the workers like rain. The lithium separation process was halted in 1963, but much of the 2.4 million pounds of mercury used in the lithium separation process had already been lost. The largest spill occurred in 1966, when 100,000 pounds of mercury spurted out of the Y-12 plant as a result of misvalving. Workers reported wading in the mercury as it flowed into the creeks, off the reservation, through the city of Oak Ridge, and into the Clinch River.

The government kept information about the mercury releases from the public. A report on mercury was prepared in June, 1977, by Union Carbide, Union Carbide Corporation the government’s contractor at Oak Ridge. The report indicated that approximately 2.4 million pounds of mercury had been released from the Oak Ridge Reservation. The government classified the report as “business confidential.”

On December 5, 1981, Steve Gough, Gough, Steve a research biologist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and his brother Larry Gough, Gough, Larry a geochemist with the U.S. Geological Survey, took plant samples from along the creeks running from the Oak Ridge Reservation. Familiar with high levels of mercury as a result of having worked on an environmental study at the laboratory in 1978, Steve Gough planned to write a proposal for a major study of heavy metals in East Fork Poplar Creek, jointly funded by the DOE and the U.S. Geological Survey. Larry Gough had the plant samples from the creeks near the reservation analyzed in Denver, and extremely high levels of mercury were discovered. One sample contained the largest concentration of mercury ever measured in plant material by the U.S. Geological Survey Laboratory.





The Goughs’ plan for a study ended when government officials were informed about the samples. Stanley Auerbach, Auerbach, Stanley director of environmental sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, contacted the U.S. Geological Survey Laboratory and requested that the samples be sent to him. Auerbach reportedly requested that the samples be sent without a cover letter, which, according to Steve Gough, would mean that no record would exist officially. Claiming harassment for his activities, Steve Gough left his job in June, 1982, and moved away.

Government officials began to be pressured by the state of Tennessee about the mercury issue. On November 1, 1982, the state posted signs warning against eating fish from a creek in Oak Ridge after mercury was found in the fish. In March, 1983, state inspectors found that sediment samples taken from the creek nearest the Y-12 plant had a mercury concentration of 18 parts per million, compared with a natural level of 0.5 parts per million. As a result, officials from the state, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the government agreed to establish a mercury task force to develop a cleanup plan.

The editor of a local newspaper, the Appalachian Observer, heard about the Goughs’ efforts and discovered the 1977 Union Carbide classified document. The editor filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act that forced the government’s declassification and May 17 release of the report. Sections of the 1977 report remain deleted, because they are classified from the public. The report confirms that approximately 2.4 million pounds of mercury were released from the Oak Ridge Reservation between 1950 and 1977.


The release of the 1977 report quickly sparked congressional hearings, drawing media and public attention. The hearings were sponsored by two congressional subcommittees: the Subcommittee on Energy Research and Production, chaired by Representative Marilyn Lloyd, Lloyd, Marilyn and the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Representative Al Gore. A number of expert witnesses spoke at the hearings. William R. Bibb, Bibb, William R. head of energy programs for the DOE, stated that mercury contamination had been found in sediment and fish in the Clinch River thirty-five miles from the reservation. Frank D’Itri, D’Itri, Frank a leading expert on mercury, criticized the DOE’s entire waste-management technology, describing it as “state-of-the-art 1945.” S. David Freeman, Freeman, S. David director of the Tennessee Valley Authority, testified that the revelation of mercury releases initiated investigations that identified other types of contamination by toxic chemicals, toxic solvents, and radioactive chemical compounds. The congressional investigations and hearings concluded that the DOE had disclosed incomplete and misleading information about mercury releases to both government agencies and the public and had used national security to avoid dealing with the problem.

News of the mercury release and the hearings heightened mistrust of the DOE. Area residents were shocked that it had taken the DOE six years to disclose the releases. Members of state agencies feared that the DOE could not be trusted to monitor itself at Oak Ridge. David McKinney, McKinney, David a Tennessee State Department official, testified at the congressional hearings that DOE officials had led him to believe that no more than 200,000 pounds of mercury had been released from the reservation.

The DOE responded with a massive campaign to restore confidence. Management was changed. The new Oak Ridge manager, Joe La Grone, La Grone, Joe apologized for the mercury incident and promised the public greater candor and pledged a commitment to solving the reservation’s environmental problems. The DOE also began providing more information to the public. The DOE began conducting open stakeholder meetings with area residents and began meeting regularly with the East Fork Poplar Creek Citizens Working Group, a citizens’ organization interested in the cleanup of the creek.

Political pressure from the congressional hearings forced the DOE to involve the state of Tennessee in Oak Ridge waste-management decisions. A special branch of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the DOE Oversight Committee, was established to monitor the environmental cleanup activities at Oak Ridge. In 1989, the Oak Ridge Reservation and the East Fork Poplar Creek were placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority list for cleanup. Although the reservation had several other problems that assured its eligibility for the list, the impetus for identifying East Fork Poplar Creek as a Superfund Superfund (1980) site (that is, a site covered under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980) Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (1980) can be traced to the 1983 disclosure of the mercury release.

In 1991, the DOE entered into a health studies agreement with the state of Tennessee that included DOE funding for an independent health study of residents living in communities near the Oak Ridge Reservation. The DOE’s efforts to restore public trust were successful: A 1993 survey of Oak Ridge area residents conducted by the University of Tennessee indicated increased confidence in the DOE.

The events at Oak Ridge were important for area residents, but they also carried long-term consequences for people outside Oak Ridge. In the early twenty-first century, Oak Ridge remained one of eighteen active nuclear weapons production sites; thus several communities faced the possibility of contamination by military weapons development. Additionally, many other military sites such as bases, proving grounds, and storage facilities posed potential health risks to host communities.

Because of the accountability factor established by the events at Oak Ridge, the climate for placing public health and safety first became more favorable. This concern for public health produced a large contingent of watchdog organizations at the local, state, and federal levels. At the local level, citizens’ organizations were established to inform residents, monitor cleanup and waste-management strategies, and pressure appropriate agencies. Such groups emerged at military sites in Fernald, Ohio, and Lexington, Kentucky.

State governments were encouraged to strengthen their departments of conservation and environment and to regulate the military’s effects on the environment. Federal regulation of military activities regarding the environment increased with the passage of the 1992 Federal Facility Compliance Act, Federal Facility Compliance Act (1992) which required the military to comply with the same environmental laws that govern corporate production activities. Prior to passage of this legislation, the military was exempt from environmental regulation. President Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;environmental policy attempted to rectify the situation by issuing an executive order to bring the military into compliance with environmental laws, but not until the passage of the Federal Facility Compliance Act was there a legal basis for enforcing environmental laws on military installations. Oak Ridge National Laboratory Ecological disasters Disasters;mercury contamination Mercury poisoning Department of Energy, U.S.;Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrlich, Anne H., and John W. Birks, eds. Hidden Dangers: The Environmental Consequences of Preparing for War. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990. Excellent critical analysis of the harmful environmental consequences of war readiness. Part one of the book covers issues related to the nuclear legacy, including the Department of Energy’s fight to remain outside the constraints of policy compliance. Part two moves beyond nuclear weapons and addresses such issues as chemical and biological weapons production. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freudenberg, Nicholas. Not in Our Backyards! Community Action for Health and the Environment. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984. Discusses how corporations and the government contaminate the environment and addresses how community organizations react to environmental contamination. Using case studies, Freudenberg documents the ways in which community groups organize, educate the public, and take action. Concludes with an interesting discussion of methods of strengthening the environmental movement. Index and references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibbs, Lois Marie, with Murray Levine. Love Canal: My Story. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982. Inspiring account of the Love Canal story as told by Lois Gibbs, a housewife and mother of two children living in the area. Gibbs realized that her son’s illness was caused by contaminants from a toxic chemical dump site. Gibbs’s actions sparked what would become a successful struggle for all residents in the area to relocate with compensation from the government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Charles W., and Charles O. Jackson. City Behind a Fence: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, 1942-1946. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981. Documents the creation of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Good coverage of the Manhattan Project and the reasons that this area was selected to be the atomic capital of the world. Documents the peculiarities of living in a secret community. Extensive endnotes with index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levine, Adeline Gordon. Love Canal: Science, Politics, and People. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1982. This is the story of how citizens from the Love Canal area of Niagara Falls struggled for the right to escape homes contaminated by chemical wastes. Excellent analysis of how a grassroots citizens’ group can successfully fight the government. All of the residents of the Love Canal area were eventually given the opportunity to relocate and were compensated for their losses by the government. Good index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olwell, Russell B. At Work in the Atomic City: A Labor and Social History of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004. Drawing on an array of primary sources, the author tells the story of the Oak Ridge workers as they tried to establish their lives and to form unions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlesinger, Tom, John Gaventa, and Juliet Merrifield. Our Own Worst Enemy: The Impact of Military Production on the Upper South. New Market, Tenn.: Highlander Research and Education Center, 1983. Critical analysis of the impact of military production on local communities. Contains excellent coverage of the negative consequences of weapons production at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Extensive endnotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shulman, Seth. The Threat at Home: Confronting the Toxic Legacy of the U.S. Military. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992. Documents the U.S. military’s history of toxic-waste contamination. Offers a critical analysis of how the military exists in a protected position, polluting the environment almost without regulation. Particular emphasis on the Pentagon’s role in concealing pollution generated by weapons development. Extensive glossary, endnotes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Westcott, Ed. Oak Ridge. Mount Pleasant, S.C.: Arcadia, 2005. More than two hundred photographs documenting the building of Oak Ridge from 1942 to 1945.

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Categories: History