One day in the spring of 1984, a teenager in eastern Oklahoma's Muskogee County took his BB gun and went hunting at a pond by Rabbit Hill Farm. He shot a frog that had nine legs.
"Freddie the nine-legged-frog" is not the area's only animal anomaly. People have shot rabbits that have two hearts. And some folks report seeing a two-headed blackbird flying about. But not six-year-old Lisa Girty, who was born without eyes or eye sockets.
Such are signs of the times around Sequoyah Fuels, a uranium processing plant located between the towns of Gore and Vian, and within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, a 14-county area in the eastern part of the state. This facility is owned by Kerr-McGee Corporation, and it is there where the late Karen Silkwood's former employer turns powdered uranium ore into uranium hexafluoride (UF6).
Kerr-McGee makes UF6 by dissolving the powdered ore in an acidic solution from which the most readily fissionable uranium is chemically removed. Cylinders of UF6 are then trucked to nearby Interstate 40 for delivery to more than 50 customers -- including 25 U.S. nuclear power plants, seven nations and the Department of Energy. These nuclear clients either enrich the UF6 into nuclear fuel, use it to make nuclear medicines or, in the case of the Department of Energy, refine it into weapons grade material for nuclear bombs.
Kerr-McGee's plant, one of two of its kind in the country, is vital to the U.S. nuclear industry and the war machine that the industry symbiotically supports. Local critics say this strategic importance has enabled Kerr-McGee to operate outside normal regulatory controls -- with the end result being a contaminated environment, and the area's high incidence of cancer deaths.
In addition to making uranium hexafluoride, Kerr-McGee produces a lot of toxic wastes.
Until 1982, when the Nuclear Reguatory Commission (NRC) ordered Kerr-McGee to install scrubbers on the plant's main smokestack, the company regularly spewed radioactive debris into the air and onto the surrounding neighborhood. And Kerr-McGee Corporation continues to dump radioactive water into the Illinois River.
But the waste that the company finds the most difficult to dispose of is the solution that remains after the uranium is extracted. Technically known as raffinate, this toxic sludge contains radioactive elements like radium-226, thorium-230, and uranium, as well as seventeen toxic and heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, molybdenum, and selenium. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Kerr-McGee produces about 7.8 million gallons of raffinate each year.
In 1982, the NRC gave Kerr-McGee permission to begin injecting this industrial waste into underlying sandstone rock formations. Five million gallons were disposed of before intense public opposition forced the corporation to seal off its well.
Out of that public revolt was born Native Americans for a Clean Environment (NACE). Jesse Deer-in-Water, who, with her husband William, organized the initial opposition to the waste injections, is NACE's chairperson.
A former beautician, the 43-year-old Cherokee woman and mother of five runs the organization out of her home in Vian. Deer-in-Water scorns the NRC: "It's just out to save the nuclear industry."
This is Kerr-McGee's recipe for industrial waste fertilizer: add ammonia to the raffinate as it leaves the plant; the ammonia combines with nitric acid, already in the solution, to create the
fertilizing agent, ammonium nitrate; filter the liquid that settles on the top of the holding pools; collect some of the remaining radioactive and heavy-metal particles using chemical and
centrifugal processes. Presto. The Industrial waste is ready to be spread on company-owned farms -- farms like Rabbit Hill whose fields run off into the pond where freddie- the- nine- legged- frog once lived.