Just another day in America, where corporations pollute and no one makes them clean it up.
Vina Colley, a slight woman with a bob of thick blond hair, climbs into her white Ford Explorer. Her thirteen-year-old Maltese, Hercules, jumps onto her lap, wedging comfortably between her legs and the steering wheel, and stays put as she navigates the steep ridges and plunging hollows of Pike County, Ohio. Colley is 74, and, for nearly 40 years, she’s been fighting the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, known locally as “The A-Plant” or PORTS. Her home library holds scores of totes filled with neatly labeled documents, a paper trail that exposes what she sees as Portsmouth’s darkest and most egregious secrets.
The plant, nestled on the edge of Appalachian Ohio, is just a few minutes’ drive from Pike County, a long hour south of Columbus and 90 minutes east of Cincinnati. It was built during the Cold War, in 1952, to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons and the U.S. Department of Energy’s atomic energy program. Gaseous diffusion is, basically, a process of enriching uranium through a series of feeds and cascades. This particular process has since fallen out of favor, as technological advances have made the process obsolete — the plant stopped enriching uranium by by diffusion in 2001, and, in 2007, a portion of the facility was adapted into the American Centrifuge Plant. But in its prime, gaseous diffusion was a big deal for Pike County. It was also, Colley argues, a serious threat.
Vina Colley was Erin Brockovich before Erin Brockovich. By the time Brockovich — later played famously by Julia Roberts in the movie of the same name — was building her successful case against Pacific Gas & Electric in California, in 1993, Colley had already been battling the A-Plant for a decade. She alleges the plant has duped area residents for years about the health dangers of its processes, and that the government has created an impossible-to-navigate claims system in response. Colley has become an unlikely citizen-scientist, spending a lifetime researching and documenting PORTS and its sins.
Colley was hired as an electrician at the facility in 1980 and worked there for three years. “I was exposed to everything. We were cleaning off radioactive equipment that we did not know was radioactive. They never told us,” Colley told me. Then, she said, her hair started falling out, she developed rashes, and, “I got really sick and went to the hospital, not knowing that it was my job causing me all these problems. I had big tumors.” In the four decades since, she’s faced a range of health problems, including chronic bronchitis, tumors and pulmonary edema.
Colley is not alone. Around Pike and Scioto Counties, the stories flow as freely as creeks: a child who died of leukemia, a whole family felled by cancer, an uncle with unusual tumors on his neck, a cousin with a stillborn baby, someone with kidney issues, and on and on. I recently went around interviewing people about these stories. (When I pulled into one driveway, to talk to a resident near the plant, they said, simply, “you’ll need to call my lawyer.”) Portsmouth’s hidden legacy has created a cohort of other citizen-scientists, home-grown atomic Brokoviches, and residents who reel off statistics about isotope half-lives, transuranic neptunium and beryllium like people elsewhere might talk about the weather or fishing.
None of this is inevitable. This could be cleaned up. New health problems from this plant could be prevented. But it isn’t going to happen. This is the real point of the Republican Party. Its leaders? This is exactly what they want, even if they have to run on racism and misogyny to get the base to vote for them.