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126 six Injustice in the Handling of Nuclear Weapons Waste The Case of David Witherspoon, Inc. john nolt I n t h e f a l l o f 1 9 8 5 , D o r o t h y H u n l e y d i e d o f osteogenic sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Her doctor publicly expressed his opinion that her cancer was the result of occupational exposure to radiation .1 For over a decade, she had worked for David Witherspoon, Inc., a scrap metal dealer with a history of buying and processing radioactive materials from nuclear weapons facilities. Hunley’s story made headlines in the Knoxville papers, and the publicity brought to light a story of environmental and social injustice that would continue to unfold for more than two decades. It is a tale of two cities—or rather, a city and a neighborhood: the secret city of Oak Ridge and the impoverished South Knoxville neighborhood of Vestal, where Dorothy Hunley lived and worked. Vestal was settled early in the nineteenth century as a community of farms. It remained largely rural through much of the nineteenth century, until the Tennessee River was bridged, connecting Vestal to downtown Knoxville. Though the fields and pastures are gone, some of the original farmhouses remain. But the newer residences tend to be small, often dilapidated single-story houses. Zoning was long unheard of here. Homes and The Case of David Witherspoon, Inc. 127 decaying industrial plants intermingle. Rail lines, still very active, traverse the community. Through the midst of Vestal flows Goose Creek; a mile or so downstream it empties into the Tennessee River, just across from the University of Tennessee . The land around the mouth of Goose Creek is today the locus of an upscale redevelopment project. But even a block or two to the south, back from the river, visible poverty and hardship remain. Though now interracial, Vestal was historically mostly white, populated largely by transplanted Appalachian mountain folk. One of the main industries , starting in the 1880s, was the Vestal Lumber Company. Candoro Marble Works, located at the corner of Maryville Pike and Candora Road, was added in 1914. Like many poor communities, Vestal offered cheap labor. Hence it served as a magnet for hazardous and polluting industries, including not only several scrap yards, but an aluminum smelter and an asphalt plant.2 The second city of our story, the secret one, lies about twenty miles west of Knoxville. Founded in 1942 as the Clinton Engineering Works, a major facility of the Manhattan Project, it was rechristened in 1943 as Oak Ridge. The federal government appropriated about 60,000 acres of land for the project, displacing thirty-seven thousand people from the farming villages of Elza, Robertsville, Scarboro, and Wheat. Engineers, physicists, and technicians poured in from all over the country to replace them.Almost overnight a remote farming region was transformed into a high-tech, high-security industrial complex focused exclusively on a single urgent task: the creation of the atomic bomb.3 But not all who moved to Oak Ridge were highly educated professionals. The weapons plants also employed thousands of industrial workers, many of them black. Segregation was a fact of life.At first blacks lived in very primitive housing; later they were relocated to the Scarboro neighborhood, adjacent to the huge Y-12 weapons plant.4 Thus, like their mostly white counterparts in Vestal, they endured life in close proximity to industrial operations involving radioactive and other toxic materials. The management of the Oak Ridge plants was transferred from the Manhattan Project to theAtomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1946,with Union Carbide Corporation as chief contractor. The AEC was later assimilated into the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and the chief contractor eventually became Martin Marietta Energy Systems. Weapons manufacture continued; and after the development of the hydrogen bomb, components for thermonuclear weapons, too, were produced at Oak Ridge. John Nolt 128 Over the years, the Oak Ridge plants generated huge quantities of radioactive and other toxic waste. Though much of it was disposed of in burial grounds at or near Oak Ridge (another tale of environmental injustice, but one that cannot be told here),5 scrap metal and machinery,often contaminated with radioactive materials,was sold to private dealers.Prominent among those dealers was David Witherspoon, Inc. The firm was founded by David Witherspoon Sr in 1948. It operated on three parcels of land adjacent to rail...


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