Thursday, December 04, 2008

Silkwood Story

In 1974, Marilyn and her two kids, Shane and Shannon, lived in a small apartment near the Edmond college that is now the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO). Living in an apartment directly across from Marilyn was Karen Silkwood and her roommate Sherri Ellis.

Karen Silkwood was the subject of the 1983 movie Silkwood that starred Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell and Cher. Silkwood worked in the Cimarron plant that processed plutonium for Kerr-McGee. Mysteriously contaminated with plutonium, she died shortly after in a single car accident while on her way to give an interview to a New York Times investigative reporter.

Karen, according to Marilyn, had discovered that a large number of the workers at the plant had developed cancer, as had she. She, along with many others, believed it was because the plant had lax procedures for handling the deadly plutonium. The plant had de-unionized and she was one of the few remaining members. As such, she felt it was her responsibility to expose the plant’s dangers.

As a union spark plug, Silkwood became a target, either by workers fearful of losing their high paying jobs, or by Kerr-McGee itself. More than once, Marilyn observed Silkwood in intense arguments with some man driving a blue pickup, the last argument occurring the day before her death.

Before her death, Kerr-McGee personnel conducted a search of her apartment, finding high degrees of contamination. They even found an object, clearly marked as radioactive, in Shane’s toys. The Company maintained that Silkwood had contrived to contaminate herself, and thus implicate Kerr-McGee.

Karen Silkwood swerved off the road on her way to meet the investigative reporter. The car, when searched after the accident, contained no contaminated evidence, but had blue paint on a rear fender from an accident with another vehicle.

Did Kerr-McGee plant radioactive material in her apartment? Did Kerr-McGee have Silkwood killed? Did she have illegal drugs in her body at the time of the crash? I do not know, but I do know that the resultant lawsuit filed by her family settled out of court for more than a million dollars.

As a geologist, I also know that Kerr-McGee had another plant in Gore, Oklahoma - a place that insiders now consider one of the most contaminated places in the United States. Carroll, a friend and fellow geologist, once worked for Kerr-McGee Minerals and told me that they would calibrate their helicopter-borne Geiger counters by flying over Gore.

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