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Mavis Belisle

INTERVIEWEE: Mavis Belisle (MB)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: October 3, 2002
LOCATION: Panhandle, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2212 and 2213

Please note that the video includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name’s David Todd. It’s October 3rd, 2002. We’re at the Peace Farm, which is in Panhandle, Texas, across from the Pantex complex. And we have the chance to be visiting with Mavis Belisle, who’s the director of the Peace Farm and has been a leader in both the environmental and non-violent protests against Pantex for many years. And I want to thank her for taking the time to talk to us. Mavis, I thought we might start with your childhood days and if there might have been factors in your youth that contributed to your interest in peace and environmental protection? Any members of your family or early friends that you had?
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MB: To my knowledge, it was more a matter of timing than particular people. I was—I was born on the naval air station in Corpus Christi and grew up in Dallas and went to schools in Dallas. I was in junior high school when the integration activities began in that—in that area, began to be very visible. And so my first experiences with non-violence and with social change were with integration as an issue, rather than—than peace or environmental affairs. I moved into college at UT in Austin just as the envi—the Vietnam War was heating up and the U.S. was becoming more and more deeply bogged down in Vietnam. And, of course, it was an—an issue for all of the young men I
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knew. They, you know, were scared to death to open their mailboxes everyday, even though they had student deferments, there was still a chance of, you know, of getting draft notices. So it was impossible not to be aware of—of the impact of that on—on their lives, and therefore, on, you know, on my life. And—and to be—to be—become active in antiwar—anti-Vietnam War activities there, which merged still with the—the integration activities, which were ongoing at the UT campus at that time. I lived in the—the co-op that was the first on-campus housing that was room-by-room integrated. Now the university dorms were integrated, but they had still all of the—the black students in
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one particular wing rather than having them intermingled within rooms. So, those two things together, I think, were a part of my formation. And, of course, that was also the—the time that Rachel Carson’s book was being widely read and distributed. And so all of those little pieces kind of came together at the same time.
DT: You mentioned integration. Can you tell some of your personal experiences in junior high school or later, and the kind of impact that might have had on you?
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MB: In—in—in junior high school, I lived in—in Oak Cliff, which was the—as—as African Americans began moving out of South Dallas and expanding into other areas of Dallas, Oak Cliff was one of the first places that began to be integrated. The—the little Presbyterian Church that I was a member of at that time discussed the issue a lot because
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they were in a neighborhood which they feared would be integrated very quickly. It was close enough to the—to the river area. And they made a decision to move further south where they thought it was less likely to be integrated. And I left the—the church at that time and looked for another that would be actively involved in—in trying to bring out—bring about a peaceful integration.
DT: I think you were speaking earlier about how some of your non-violent response to change came out of integration. Can you give me an example of how you had that sort of attitude and how it played out for you?
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MB: I think the awareness of non-violence itself didn’t come until later. We—non-violence, as a, you know, as a philosophy of change, at least, didn’t come until later when—when I was in Austin. And I was working with a group there that was meeting on Saturday mornings at a Piccadilly cafeteria downtown, and we were sitting every morning with—with protest signs outside the Piccadilly, which was one of the places that was resisting integration. And—and of course, we did preparation before that and—and what—what passed then as non-violence training. And preparation for dealing with, you know, people who would be hostile on the street. And—and there was never any real violence, we were spit on a few times and—and kicked once or twice, but never, you know, never seriously threatened.
DT: What was the non-violence training that you might go through? What sort of ideas would you try to share with one another to prepare?
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MB: Just—just how to respond, how not to be caught up in the, you know, in verbal confrontations, es—and especially not respond if there were, you know, more overt violence. And it was more a—just an awareness and a—and a pledge to behave that way that—that, you know, that comprised the training.
DT: So the idea was—in non-violent protest was more to be playing witness by your presence rather than to try and engage in some kind of debate about what was right and wrong.
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MB: Right, right. It—when people are tense and angry and—and upset and—there’s very little point in trying to engage in a reasoned discussion. You know, you—you accept their emotion and—and what, you know—whether you agree with it or not, you accept the fact that that’s where they are and—and don’t try to make, you know, reasoned arguments at that time. It’s a fairly futile activity. And that’s true, no matter what the issue is, whether it’s a—an environmental issue or a peace issue or anything else.
DT: You brought us up to your college years when you were involved in protesting some of the civil rights problems of the day. Can you carry us on a little bit further and tell us more?
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MB: When I left college I—I went to the Peace Corps and spent three years in Micronesia. I was on—in one of the western island groups called Palau and—which is—but on the opposite end of Micronesia, on the eastern side, were the Marshalls, where they actually had done nuclear weapons testing in the—in the 1960’s. Up until 50—1950’s and 1960’s, and moved whole populations off of islands to do U.S. weapons testing. Even the islands that I was on, though, had belonged to Japan up until World War II and the U.S. had taken them aft—had fought, you know, across the islands, you know, piece by piece, during the Pacific War. And the effects of the war were still—
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World War II, were still very visible when I was there from ’66 to ’69. There were still islanders being injured by mines that had been left, you know, along the coast. And still, you know, bombed out buildings that had been part of the Japanese communication center and their administrative centers. Those—those buildings had never been repaired. And the school that I taught in was actually one of those bombed out buildings that had been somewhat repaired to make it usable for a school. So, I guess it gave me a more direct experience of what war might have been like than—than most people, you know, my age would’ve had. At the same time the—the islands were being used as R&R stops for troops from Vietnam, so occasionally, primarily Navy and Air Force, we had very few Army groups there, but Navy and Air Force crews would be there occasionally on
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R&R. And there’d be the interaction with them, with their experiences and, I guess a final part of that was that the—the last year I was there, the Japanese were allowed back on the islands for the first time since the end of the war. And they sent a delegation to reclaim bones and do the ceremonial burning of—of—of bones, so they’d had islanders helping them search out caves that had been used during the war and places in the harbors where ships or boats might’ve been sunk to help gather and collect the—the—the victims of—their victims of the war.
DT: You mentioned that there were the bombed out buildings left over from World War II and the bones of the victims…
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MB: And people still being injured.
DT: Yeah.
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MB: Yeah.
DT: Could you talk about some of the effects you might’ve seen from either the dislocated people or the direct effects of the bombing, the testing that was done through the early nuclear weapons?
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MB: The—that—the dislocated people and the—and the islands that were actually used for bombing were pretty far away from me. I was able to visit them, you know, on—on trips a couple of time, but—and to talk to Marshallese, you know, about their experiences, but they were really not very close to me. It wasn’t something that I could do regularly.
DT: Well, what kinds of stories did you hear from the Marshallese?
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MB: These are—these are all very small islands, scattered about in the middle of, you know, of a very big ocean, and so every—every piece of land is incredibly important. In a way that—that I think it’s hard for us, you know, who buy and sell land and move from one piece of land to another regularly, it’s—it’s hard for us to understand how—how much of—of a person’s identity can be tied up with a particular piece of land. And how important it is because that’s where their ancestors are—are buried also. And to lose that, and to be forced onto another island with another, you know, with another group who—who has now—who has to share resources which were too meager to begin with, and to lose that—the land of their own, the land of where there ancestors were, is to lose identity in a way, I think, that’s very hard for us to understand. You—you can’t pay people for a piece of land like that, like we assume that you buy and sell lots here.
DT: Something else that comes to my mind. You chose to serve in the Peace Corps but I think you mentioned that you were from a military family. Was there much reaction to your choice?
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MB: No. My family was—was not military. I was born on—on the naval air station because it was the—the very last year of the World War II and my father was stationed there. But he was only there until ’46 and did—did—was not in the military after that.
DT: I see. Well, maybe you can carry us a little bit further on. You served through your Peace Corps years as a teacher and then when you finished your tour of duty, what happened?
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MB: I spent about five months in Japan and again saw—was able to visit Hiroshima and see directly the effects of—of, you know, the first nuclear—nuclear bomb, first atomic bomb.
DT: What was your impression, and why did you choose to go? That must have been a rare thing.
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MB: I—I chose to go to Japan because of interaction with—with the Japanese and—
when I was in—in Palau, and really being interested in that and just wanting to see—see Japan and the—and their shrines and temples and art and everything else. I chose to go to Hiroshima just because of—it seemed that you wouldn’t have been in Japan unless you had seen that. So I—I made a trip down there to do that. I spent most of the time, though, in Tokyo and Kyoto. A part of being in—in Tokyo was also another chance to see the Vietnam War from another perspective because Japanese students were very, very hostile to the U.S. war in Vietnam. And to the fact that—that U.S. Navy ships that they
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knew were carrying nuclear weapons were docking in Japanese ports, against the treaties which prohibited that. So there were a lot of protests of—of Americans, and especially American military at that time in Vietnam, which were never, I think, reported in the—in the press in the U.S.
DT: What was your impression when you went to Hiroshima?
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MB: I think sadness more than anything else. Sadness and—and—and, of course, pleasure at the recovery. But just the—the fact that so many lives, and particularly civilian lives, were wasted. And that—and that the—the affects on the survivors, the long-term, you know, health effects and scarring and—and disablement. You know, it—it didn’t end the day after the bombing, it—it goes on and on forever.
DT: So was that pretty clear to you at the time that there were mutagenic and carcinogenic problems?
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MB: I think out—that was not so clear to me at the time, but the—just how severely damaged the—the lives of even the survivors were was clear.
DT: Can we get some examples of what you saw?
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MB: Mmm-hmm. The—the—the scarring and the—the fact that many of the survivors never married and had children because it was such a—a—a fearful thing. It was very difficult for them to find marriage partners who were willing to have children with them, or they themselves might have also been afraid to have children because of the possible effects. So there were people who lived their lives as unwilling singles because of that and unwilling non-parents because of that.
DT: You also mentioned that when you were in Japan, you discovered that there were a lot of Japanese students and young people who were aware that there were nuclear weapons and (?) of the treaties, and I’m curious how they knew and why their knowledge wasn’t shared through the media here in the United States?
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MB: They—they just knew and I think they knew which class of ships carried nuclear weapons. Although the official policy of the Navy has always been neither to—I think the words are neither to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons on a particular vessel. It—it’s pretty generally known around the world which classes of ships routinely carry them. And the—and the Japanese government knew it and accepted it, but for students in Japan it was—they were—they were really outraged by the fact that it was happening and that their own government was allowing it.
DT: Well, did this visit to Japan sort of foretell what you were going to be doing later on or was it just a sort of isolated experience with nuclear arms and nuclear weapon use?
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MB: I think the combination of—of—of being—being in the Marshall’s and then being in Hiroshima, the combination of the two, was life changing. I don’t know that either one of them was more so than the other one. But, just an—just an awareness that—that not only nuclear weapons, but war has an impact that goes far beyond the—the military personnel who fight it.
DT: And it reaches communities like Amarillo.
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MB: Hmm-mmm. Hmm-mmm.
DT: If you can help bring us up to date a little bit. After you came back from Japan, what did you do then and how did it lead you eventually to Panhandle, Texas?
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MB: I—I moved back to Dallas and I worked there until 1991. I had for about ten years, two Micronesian children, who came over the—one of them the first year that I came back and one a subsequent year, to go to school here. And the village that they lived in, and that I had taught in, only went through eighth grade, so they would’ve had to leave home to get education beyond the eighth grade in any case. And so they came to—to live with me in Dallas and to go finish their high school years and college there. And I worked during those years for a Tex—Texas Catholic newspaper, the diocesan newspaper for the dioceses of Dallas and Fort Worth.
DT: And at this time, was the Catholic Church interested and supportive of the kind of non-violent and environmental concerns that you had?
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MB: These—these were the—in—in a very general way, in a—not so much in a specific way, but they were—they were willing, they were—they were tolerant and accepting of—and sometimes even supportive of my activities. From the mid 70’s on, I spent a lot of time working on Comanche Peak, the—the nuclear power plant just outside of Dallas, and engaged more with that than with nuclear weapons issues.
DT: Were you involved in some of the non-violent protests?
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MB: Yes, yes, uh-huh.
DT: Did you get involved with some of the civil disobedience as well?
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MB: Yes, uh-huh. We—I worked originally with a little group called Armadillo Coalition of Texas and as things progressed at Comanche Peak, and—and the work on the intervention was going on—the legal intervention, but it was pretty clear that that was not going to be successful. The—the—the coalition divided itself into another organization called the Comanche Peak Life Force. And the Life Force organized the civil disobedience activities at Comanche Peak. We had affinity groups in Dallas, Fort Worth, Denton and Austin, so there were several—several different groups working on it.
DT: As far as I’m aware, it’s one of the very few civil disobedience acts in almost any kind of progressive cause in Texas, and certainly in environmental…
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MB: I think it was the first organized large-scale, and when I say large, I mean, 50 to 100 people arrested at the demonstrations, that had ever happened in Texas. There had been individual arrests in small groups of like two or three during the Vietnam War, I understand, but—but not really an organized and planned civil disobedience until the—the Comanche Peak Life Force.
DT: Well, can you tell the story of how that came about?
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MB: We—we just felt like that it was—that we weren’t adequately getting public response doing the kind of educational events and activities that we had been doing. It was still very minimally known in Dallas and Fort Worth that there was even a nuclear power plant under construction. And the sign in Glen Rose even said—most people in Glen Rose didn’t understand that it was a nuclear power plant. The sign in front of it said, Comanche Peak Steam Electric Generating Station, or something like that. The words atomic and nuclear were nowhere visible. The Armadillo Coalition wanted to continue with its educational activities and—and that kind of programming and did not want to be
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associated with the civil disobedience, so it was a friendly split, and—and many of us continued to work in both organizations and to do both kinds of things, but we set up a different name. So—and did the civil disobedience. And brought in—originally we brought in trainers from Oklahoma, non-violence trainers to do the training for trainers, for us, and I think probably there were eight or ten of us in that initial training. And then we began holding non-violence trainings in Dallas and Fort Worth on weekends for six or eight weeks before the first actual civil disobedience action. And recruited a lawyer, a man named Louis Pitts, who had also been involved with the Black Fox opposition. That was the nuclear power plant that was under construction in Oklahoma that was cancelled fairly early in its construction, right after Three Mile Island, in fact. So—so their trainers were—were free to—to do traveling and to—to come and lend us a hand.
DT: And what form did the civil disobedience take?
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MB: We did—we climbed over the fences at the—at the dump plant and onto—occupied the plant property. The first two were pretty symbolic occupations, we just basically put ladders over the fences and even very carefully so we wouldn’t damage the—the barbed wire. And sat down and waited for them to come and—and do the arrests. The third one was much more extended, and we actually had people on the site for about two weeks. It was that—that hottest summer in Dallas in years, and so the big logistical problem was keeping—I was—I was arrested fairly early in the occupation, my group was—was pinned down by helicopters and we were arrested. But several of the other groups were able to maintain the occupation for almost two weeks.
DT: And they were—can you tell how you were pinned down by helicopters and how the others were more elusive?
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MB: We were just scattered across the—the plant site and we would go and at various times and—and do things like hang banners from the—the buildings. At—toward the end, one group even had a—a small smoke device that—it didn’t create a flame at all, but it created a lot of smoke, and they used that—actually on the roof of—of one of the buildings to show how bad the security was. And it was, of course, very visible to news helicopters and everything. But as groups would go in and out, you know, to do actions, sometimes they would get caught.
DT: Was that one of your goals is say that not only is the plant capable of failing for mechanical reasons but also from terrorists, or just saboteurs.
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MB: Right. Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm. And…
DW: How did the media treat you? Did they portray it in rather black and white? Were you the crazy protesters, or do you feel you got any fair shake in the coverage?
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MB: Actually, I think we did. I think we got fairly well handled by media. They—the difficulty was that they wanted to keep escalating; they wanted things to get more exciting. And we realized that if that happened, that we would—that we would have people hurt. And so we stopped doing actions on the site itself and moved—moved back into doing things at the corporate headquarters in Dallas.
DT: Why were you concerned that people would get hurt? Were the police pretty hostile?
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MB: Yeah. Mmm-hmm. They were.
DT: You mentioned in your own experience when you got pinned down by the helicopter.
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MB: Mmm-hmm. The—we were—we were arrested by Texas Rangers and they came and well, for example, I was arrested with another woman, who was substantially larger than me, both taller and—and quite a bit heavier. And they handcuffed us both to a—a pole and dragged us across the fields, which were, you know, in that area, prickly pear steady to the—to the helicopter, a good distance away. And because she was so much heavier, I was kind of bouncing around on the—on the handcuffs and I still have a place on—along this edge of my thumb where there’s (?) is enough nerve damage that there’s a
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line that there’s basically no feeling along. Some of—some of the others were intentionally dragged through beds of prickly pear, and so when they were taken into jail, they were pretty imbedded with cactus spines.
DT: And then, once you were in jail, was bail made? What was the procedure after that?
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MB: We did—we—we were originally released on—on our pers—on personal recognizance. Our attorney had arranged for that in advance. We were first tried as a group, the whole, I—I think there ended up being 48 of us in the first arrest group. And we were tried as one group, and brought in expert witnesses and—and, you know, the whole—the whole shebang. And—and that was also very fairly covered by media; they did a good job of presenting the information that—that our expert witnesses provided.
DT: And the charge and the witness’s testimony, what were those?
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MB: The—the charge was trespassing, criminal trespass. And the witnesses talked about health effects, and safety hazards of nuclear power plants. We were—we were acquit—we were—well, there was a hung jury on the first trial, and they decided then that they would try us one by one, singly one at a time. I was the first person brought up for trial and—and I was convicted, and sentenced to a fine, which I—I can’t even remember now what the amount was. But I—I chose not to pay it and spent the time in—in jail rather than pay the fine. The second person, while I was—began—came up for trial while I was in jail, and she appealed, she was a Sister Patricia Ridgley, from Dallas, a Catholic nun. And she appealed for the transcripts of the first trial on the basis that she was a—a pauper, because she had no income, you know, which is—which was true, of course, the way nuns work; she had very little personal income. And so that
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would’ve fallen on the—on the county to provide that transcript. And at that point, they chose to drop the charges and drop the charges on the remaining defendants rather than—than go—I think initially they had thought that—that the trials would be a—a fundraising activity for them, that once we all paid the fines, we—you know, it would be good income for the county. When they ended up having to feed and house me in jail and—and were faced with paying for her transcript, which I think the costs were estimated at something over ten thousand, they decided it wasn’t going to be a fundraising activity for them and dismissed the charges.
DT: Can you recall what the prosecuting attorney—why he, or she, decided to bring charges? Was it just a fundraising ploy from the outset or was there a little antagonism?
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MB: Oh, no, I don’t think so. I think they—they wanted to discourage us from—from being there and from doing the protest altogether. I think, you know, during the—during the process, they realized that, you know, paying fines was a good way—might be a good income, at least to offset their expenses from—for the arrests and everything. But when it—when it looked like that that wasn’t going to be the case, they dropped it pretty quickly.
DT: Can you speculate about why there was such interest and support for the Texas Utilities Project at Comanche Peak when it came after, as I recall, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the costs overruns at the South Texas Nuclear Project?
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MB: The—they began construction on the plant in the early seventies, I want to say ’73 but I’m not positive about that. So it was—by the time we began the protests in, I think the first one was in ’76, but then it was really a couple of years before there were any more. It was really like ’78—7—before we were really doing very much in the community. So they had a lot of in—investment in it, Texas Utilities did. That—of course that, yeah. And for the community, it was a—a tax issue. The—the agreement between the utility company and the county was that, once it was online and operating, it would come into their tax base. The taxes were deferred until then, but it was—you know, it’s a multimillion-dollar facility, it ended up being multibillion dollar, so it’s a big—it’s a big asset to the tax base.
DT: Do you think that Somervell County was —I believe at that time, was one of the poorest in the state? Was it chosen on the grounds that it was one of the poorer counties that would maybe welcome the income?
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MB: I suspect that that was a factor. It was also, like many rural counties, a relatively elderly county. Many of the people were sixty-plus and there were relatively few younger people still in the community. So I think that might’ve also been a factor in the choice. Plus the fact that it was just off the Brazos River and just off Lake—near—near Lake Granbury, as an emergency water supply, so I think those also made it an attractive site.
DW: Is the reason it was difficult to actually stop it then possibly because without the support of the local community, you’re all kind of outsiders coming in. Do you think had the actual town of Glen Rose opposed it, you might have been able to stop it?
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MB: A long time before we did the—even the first legal protest there, the first legal rallies, we had gone door-to-door, literal—I mean, it’s a small enough town that you can do that. Literally, door-to-door with leaflets and information and trying to talk to people. And, as I say, it was really a surprise to many of them that it was a—a nuclear power plant. Their little community newspaper had carefully avoided—avoided that and was very supportive of the project. I think it might’ve made some difference, but very, very few legal interventions have succeeded, especially when a plant was as far along as this one was when they began.
DT: What were some of the arguments that you made against the case and, in the intervention? Some of the major ones, could you mention those?
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MB: Now we didn’t actually do the intervention, although we assisted and did some fundraising for the organization that was the legal intervener. But they used construction problems. They’re very limited in what they can use in a legal intervention. It’s very, very restricted to—you can’t bring in things like generic accident things, or generic health and safety issues. So they had to pretty much focus on the construction of the plant itself. And there were some fairly serious construction flaws, in—both in pouring concrete and in running pipes. The original design had made the two units to—to be set
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up and—and piped, more or less, like a left hand and right hand. They actually began construction of the second one in the wrong direction so they would’ve been like—the piping was totally, you know, out of…
DT: Two left hands or two right hands?
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MB: Right. Right. Mmm-hmm. So there were—there were a lot of design problems that—there were holes in the concrete that you could’ve put a Volkswagen in, yeah. And this is in the containment building, you know, they…and some of them they had to, you know, chip out and repour and some of them, you know, they didn’t, but.
DT: Were there many safety improvements made following Chernobyl or Three Mile Island?
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MB: There were some. There were some. But not as much—the util—and the utilities used that to justify the—the cost increase, they—you know, they extended plan—extended construction time and the cost overruns. But really, most of the changes following Three Mile Island were related to training and personnel issues, they were—there were very few that—that were major construction changes.
DW: Shockingly similar to the situation at Diablo Canyon. I’ve seen tremendous parallels here. Because we had the left unit blueprint that was flipped and turned out on the right side.
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MB: Oh, you’re kidding, you’re kidding.
DW: And the right unit.
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MB: Came back with poison ivy all over them.
DW: Or was it poison oak?
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MB: May have been poison oak. May have been poison oak.
DT: Well, maybe this would be a good chance to talk about some of the groups that worked with you to contest the construction of Comanche Peak. I know there were several, and there were some interesting schisms between the groups…
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MB: Mmm-hmm. Yeah.
DT: And I was curious if you would talk about some of your partners, and how some of the differences arose?
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MB: The—the original intervener group was CASE in Dallas, Citizens for Sound Energy, Citizens for Safe Energy, I’m not positive now which it was [latter name is correct], but the initials were C-A-S-E. And a woman named Juanita Ellis. And we worked together initially. But when we began planning the civil—and—and we—we actually brought in speakers to do programs for the Armadillo Coalition that—that were experts that Juanita used very extensively in helping develop, you know, her—her background for—for the intervention. Another group also formed in Fort Worth as—as—as a legal intervener, after TMI. Three Mile—after Three Mile Island. And they worked together pretty well for a while.
DT: Which was that?
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MB: Pardon?
DT: What was it called?
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MB: I’m trying to remember. The woman who—who worked on it primarily was Betty Brink, but I’ve got a total blank on the name of the organization [likely, Citizens for Fair Utility Regulation].
DT: But they didn’t come at it from the same sort of—As I understood it, Juanita’s emphasis was on the—the sort of boondoggle cost overrun, this energy’s not going to be too cheap to meter aspect. But my impression was that Fort Worth’s group was more for the environmental public health.
00:47:38 – 2212
MB: They—they did, but it—at one—but eventually when it—they folded all of their contentions together. And the actual intervention was in CASE’s name, but using the contentions that both groups had—had organized and researched and—and the other group also provided logistical support. And all of us did during the intervention itself, during the hearing itself. Bringing in food and bring—running copies, hauling boxes back and forth, boxes of documents back and forth. When Juanita made the settlement without—without consulting with either the other intervener group or with any of us, the—the relationships had begun to get difficult when we did—when we did the civil disobedience. She was—she was very opposed to that, even though it brought—because it brought attention to the plant, it actually increased her funding. People who wanted to
00:49:03 – 2212
give money, but didn’t really want to support us, increased contributions to—to CASE. So it benefited her, and she recognized that it did and even acknowledged it a couple of times, but—but really didn’t like what we were doing at all. And so we all, I think, felt like we were partners, and the settlement was made without any consultation with any of us and benefited only Juanita’s group. And so it created a really serious, you know, split that—that has never healed at all.
DT: Can you talk about…
00:50:00 – 2212
MB: We—we had in—we had, in fact, been in—been talking to one of the attorneys within the week that the settlement occurred and she was—we—at that time we were doing rate protest activities and economic protest things, and she—she was encouraging us to go ahead with it and thinking it would be, you know, it was good to keep public attention on it and public pressure up and didn’t say a word to us that they were in negotiations for a settlement. So we all felt, I think, very betrayed. I know I did, and I know Betty Brink did, and Jim Schermbeck, also.
DT: And your counterparts on the other side knew that they were dealing with only a part of the coalition?
00:51:03 – 2212
MB: Yeah, they did. I’ve had occasion to talk with one of the attorneys, they were—they were working with the Government Accountability Project, attorneys. And I’ve had occasion to talk to one of them later on other—on some other issues, and he said that they simply saw that their client was Juanita and did what they thought was in the best interest of Juanita. You know, our position was that their client was the public interest and what—and the their settlement did not serve the public interest.
DT: Can you talk about some of the—it sounds like a lot of you were volunteers…
00:51:55 – 2212
MB: All of us were volunteers.
DT: That were working on this. Can you talk about some of the…
00:51:59 – 2212
MB: All of us were volunteers, yeah. Mmm-hmm. Except the attorneys.
DT: What intrigues me is that these nuclear plants are so technically complex that they’re often seen as being not something for mere layman to worry their little heads over and that it’s very difficult to approach something as just generalists. That you have to rely on people with expertise. But at the same time, I think a lot of the layman educated themselves fairly well. I wonder if you can talk about this struggle over access to information and expertise over what’s basically sort of a very public investment and a public policy issue? I hope I’m making myself clear.
00:52:58 – 2212
MB: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s one of the really great scandals of—of American education generally. That we’re led to believe that only an elite few can do science. You know, and—and I think that’s probab—that’s probably the impression that most people have. You have to be very bright, very intelligent to do science. Nobody else need to bother with touching it at all. And—and people aren’t really encouraged, you know, from—and I mean from grade school up except for a very few, to be engaged in—in science on a technical level at all. And the—and the fact is, that’s not true. Anyone who can read and has, you know, any background at all can read science as well as they can
00:54:03 – 2212
read anything else. It’s—it’s just a matter of being willing to put the work into it. I mean, you can read science as well as you can read accounting procedures. And there’s an assumption that anyone can do accounting procedures, but not everyone can do science. And that—that, in combination with the—the secrecy that’s associated so much with the—the nuclear weapons part of the complex, you know, has—has—has led to—to just a—a willingness of the public to just leave it to a few experts who, often, really don’t know very much more than—than—they know, they will often know a lot about a
00:55:04 – 2212
very particular thing, but they won’t know anymore about the big picture than laymen in the community who have—who have researched it. That’s—that’s even true at Pantex, everyone’s job at Pantex is so isolated on a particular part of the plant, that they know that part in depth, and very well. And far better, of course, than we do—those of us who—who work outside. But they often don’t have—they have less knowledge about other parts of the plant than we do, so none of them have, I think, as broad a picture as most of the organizations in the community who work around it. I think that’s equally true with nuclear power plants.
DT: Maybe this is…
00:55:56 – 2212
MB: The man who knows the wiring very well won’t know anything about the plumbing. You know.
DT: Maybe this is the place to do a segue to Pantex and your involvement with this. I was thinking maybe just as a way to tie the two together, it seems that the weapons use of nuclear theory and technology was often justified by the Atoms for Peace idea, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how the two played off each other, the sort of combination of Comanche Peak versus Pantex.
00:56:38 – 2212
MB: I think, of course, that the whole nuclear power program and—and the Atoms for Peace was to give a clean face to what was really a—really ugly issue of nuclear weapons. To—to justify having developed nuclear weapons by finding a—a socially productive use for—for the nuclear technology. Fairly—fairly early on, environmental groups split over whether or not they would support nuclear power, or whether they
00:57:26 – 2212
would have positions on nuclear weapons. It was a—a major issue in the Sierra Club / Friends of the Earth split. And as—as the movements in opposition to both of them developed, there were some people who—who saw it as—as one technology with two end products and some people who saw it as—as issues that needed to be kept entirely separate. That dealt with—and this was true in both the weapons community and the—the nuclear power community. There were people on both sides of—of that argument. They—they tended, for many years, to be separate—to—to work separately. And part of that was the—the different level of access to information on nuclear power and nuclear
00:58:27 – 2212
weapons during the—the Cold War years. And to actually do work on them, you had to be dealing with totally different regulatory processes, different agencies, different rules, different regulations. So it wasn’t really practical for very many people to do both. Nor did you have opportunities for that un—until fairly recently in the nuclear weapons complex. They were pro—they were exempted from most federal regulation and—and envi—all state regulation until fairly recently. Into the nineties. But the—but the fact is that the—they all start with uranium mining and processing, they all s—s—go through fuel fabrication and fuel enrichment. Fuel—the uranium for nuclear weapons is—is
00:59:32 – 2212
enriched a great deal more than for reactors, but the process is—is not—not substantially different, there’s just more of it. With nuclear weapons, you—you create the plutonium by running it through nuclear reactors and then separating the plutonium out of the—the spent fuel rods. And you have to deal with the nuclear waste disposal for both of them, but every step of that—of that production process, they both have to have—have to have a way to deal with the nuclear waste. So to me—to me they were always one technology with two end products.
End of Reel 2212
DT: Mavis, maybe you can resume now by telling us a little bit about how you…
DT: Let’s resume and you bring you up to date with your life after you left Dallas and moved on after the Comanche Peak controversy. As I understand it, you came to Amarillo and pretty promptly settled at the Peace Farm, is that right?
00:01:53 – 2213
MB: I left—I came here in—in June of ’91. That was about the time that the Comanche Peak issue was being settled. But, a more important factor was the—I’d been very involved in the first Gulf War protests and the whole—at the—at the end of that time, in the—in the early spring of—of ’91—that the whole community was exhausted and—and demoralized, the whole peace community. The anti-nuclear power community was also demoralized by the—and fractured by the settlement. And I, personally, needed a—just felt like I needed a change, needed to be away from both of them for a while. Just by coincidence, I saw the—the notice in the Peace Farm’s newsletter that they were
00:02:59 – 2213
looking for a director. I knew that—I knew that Ellen [Barfield] was leaving and so I applied for the job and was hired in May and came here on June 4th. So that was the—but the—the Gulf War issue was probably more a factor in—in deciding to move than the Comanche Peak.
DT: Well, maybe just to give a little context, can you talk a little bit about the Gulf War protests and the scope of them and the reason for them?
00:03:34 – 2213
MB: I had—I had worked with the Dallas Peace Center, not as a staff person, but as a volunteer through that period. Susan Lee Solar was the director at that time and, along with several other people in the community, we had begun working in the early fall when it was evident that—that an invasion of Iraq was imminent. You know, Kuwait had been await—invaded in August and—and the preparations began immediately after that. So we began doing both public education programs, developing an emergency response group to do both legal protests and—and civil disobedience if—if appropriate. It was—it was, for Dallas, I think, a fairly large and fairly intense organizational effort. I was also
00:04:42 – 2213
doing military counseling at the time and there were a lot of calls for a—a lot of concern about a draft being reinstated. And a lot of calls from military people who—who wanted out. So, and that was—some of that was very intense. So I was just ready for—to be someplace different for a while.
DT: I’m interested about the folk’s reaction who were in the military but did not want to serve in the Iraqi War. I assume they were all here for the force in the first place.
00:05:30 – 2213
MB: Yes, yes. And some of them had actually made the decision at the invasion of Panama that they wanted out and had begun applying, you know, for a—a release from the military as early as that. They felt like what happened in Panama was not anything to do with defending the United States, that it was a pretty brutal, you know, on the streets, police street fighting kind of action. And that wasn’t what they had enlisted for. And so several of the—the—the men, and they were all men that I did counseling with, were—were wanting out and some had—had begun that process months before. But because of the bureaucratic snag-ups and everything else, and—and the evidence from August on
00:06:33 – 2213
that we were going to be at war with Iraq, the military was not processing their requests. There were several others who had personal—personal issues. Some of them, medical things that they had not been honest about when they enlisted, like medications they were taking. Primarily things like—what’s the anti-depressant that’s so—Prozac, yes, and—and drugs—and drugs like Prozac, that they had regular prescriptions for that the military did not know about. Which worked okay as long as they were here in the States, but they knew, when they were in a combat zone, they would not have access to easily. And so they were trying to negotiate ways out of that basically falsified enlistment for—for medical reasons. And several other different kind of personal things.
DT: One other thing that intrigues me about the Iraqi War is that it is tied to access to energy and ensuring secure shipments of oil from the Middle East. And some people’s argument that our entire military outlook, especially since the Cold War, is very focused on Middle East and providing fuel oil for heating and gasoline for cars and other kinds of energy for the economy. Do you think that that’s a realistic assessment?
00:08:29 – 2213
MB: I think it’s broader than—I think—I think oil is a major part of it. I think it’s broader than that and I think it’s access—access to resources generally. There’s a document called Vision 20/20 by the U.S. Space Command that says in—in very bald and frank language that they foresee a future of increased competition for world resources. They see no—on the—on the—anywhere on the immediate horizon, a military threat to the United States, but they see economic threats to the United States. And greater conflicts as this competition for resources intensifies. And they want to ensure U.S. dominance of, not only military technology, but economic power in the world.
DT: Is…
00:09:41 – 2213
MB: It’s very clear, and very bald and stated, and in—in language just about as—as clear as that. And that’s—and I think the whole military structure is more and more geared toward that. I mean, it could easily—as easily be copper somewhere in South America, or something else in another place, but it’s—it’s those world resources that just have to keep—that we see—have to keep flowing through our economy to keep it functioning.
DT: So the military has turned from being a department of defense to being one of aiding and abetting oil predation and…
00:10:27 – 2213
MB: Resource, resource predation, yeah.
DT: Other kinds of resources, metals, and…
00:10:30 – 2213
MB: Yeah.
DT: And that became clear to you after the Iraqi War? Or is this something that you’ve suspected since Vietnam?
00:10:41 – 2213
MB: Well, I’ve—I’ve suspected it for a long time, but, yeah, certainly since then. But—but, you know, it’s very clear in their own documents, it’s nothing that I have to speculate about.
DT: What is some of the other evidence you’ve seen that our foreign policy is sort of oriented in that direction?
00:11:11 – 2213
MB: The selectivity with which we engage or don’t engage in regional conflicts. It seems to be directly related to whether or not there are resources in that—in that region that we want or feel like we need. For example, the ease with which we ignore most of what happens in Africa compared to what happens in—in the Middle East. I think it’s—is a resource issue. It may also be a race issue, but it’s certainly a resource issue.
DT: So bring us up to date, not to skip over your activities here at the Peace Farm, but here we’re facing another conflict in Iraq, perhaps. Do you think that’s the case there, as well? This second go around in Iraq?
00:12:16 – 2213
MB: To a very large degree, yes, uh-huh. I think it was why Afghanistan was—was chosen as the starting point for the terrorism. As much as the fact that Bin Laden was there, physically there, and I think it’s a factor in—in why Iraq is—is apparently the next point of invasion.
DT: In Afghanistan’s case, not that they sit on top of a pool of oil, but that they sit amidst, astride where the pipelines would go to Uzbekistan, or (?).
00:13:03 – 2213
MB: Right. Uh-huh.
DT: And in Iraq’s case?
00:13:06 – 2213
MB: It’s right—it’s—it is on the pool of oil. And—and it’s—where was I—I can’t remember where I was seeing it or hearing it just the other day, but there was—there’s even ongoing talk now among petroleum producers in the United States about what would happen, or whether or not they want the Iraqi wells producing at full capacity, because that would depress prices again, and what they can do to—to make sure that—that—that the—the way that Iraqi oil begins to move onto the world market again after a presumed U—U.S. victory there is carefully thought out and controlled to keep prices stable. I mean, that—that’s very cynical, but that—I mean, it’s the real world. And they—they have to think about it for their own survival and economic survival and…
DT: Maybe this would be a good time to talk about the military that is increasingly called upon to protect our access to energy and other resources. You were telling me before that you’d come to the Peace Farm in ’91. Can you tell me a little bit about the origins of the Peace Farm? Why it’s here?
00:14:52 – 2213
MB: I had been involved in activities at Pantex since, I think, 1980. There were—there were—there were small groups doing protests here and we brought one small group out from Dallas when Hiroshima…
DT: Can you explain to those of us who don’t really understand the whole scope of Pantex, what role it serves?
00:15:23 – 2213
MB: Okay. Pantex is the final assembly point for all of the weapons currently made in the U.S. arsenal with the exception of a very few that have no plutonium, but only uranium. And those are—those are assembled at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. But all of the other ones, since the—the 1950’s, have been put together at Pantex. Now the pieces come from other sites in the DOE [Department of Energy] complex, the or—originally, the plutonium was made at either Hanford or Savannah River in the react—military reactors there. The plutonium was milled at Rocky Flats, the tritium was produced at Savannah River, the uranium was pr—was enriched at—at Mound [DOE facility in Ohio], in Paducah [uranium enrichment complex in Kentucky] and Fernald [uranium processing plant in Ohio] and—and processed there and at Oak Ridge [National Laboratory in Tennessee] and assembled at Oak Ridge, and then, finally, all of those pieces came
00:16:28 – 2213
together at Pantex and what left Pantex was a nuclear weapon. Pantex is about sixteen miles northeast of Amarillo; it’s roughly twenty-two square miles, which is a small site for a DOE site. And they’ve also, since Rocky Flat was closed in 1989 for environmental and safety problems, been the, originally just the de facto plutonium pit storage site, and now officially, informally, the—the long-term storage site for the plutonium pits. Previously, when Rocky Flats was operating, the U.S. recycled its pits. When it—when it discontinued one model of nuclear weapon and—and began producing another one, it would send the plutonium back to Rocky Flats. They would reform it into the new configuration, the new size, whatever, and—and send it back to Pantex for reassembly. When that broke down, the pits just began to stack up. There was never a plan for storing pits, you know, on a long-term basis, because they would’ve gone through this—this
00:17:56 – 2213
recycling process instead. In—in the mid-nineties, the Department of Energy selected Pantex as the—the long-term storage site. So there are about 13,000 plutonium pits across the highway, in storage at Pantex. Approximately half of those are ultimately slated for—for disposition in mixed-stock side fuel, reactors for civilian nuclear power plants. They’ll go back to Savannah River and be reformulated into—into mixed fuel, mixed stock side fuel. And several nuclear power plants have agreed to—to use the plutonium in their reactors, to adapt their reactors to using the plutonium fuel. The rest of them, the other half, is going to stay at Pantex indefinitely, as—as a national asset, or strategic reserve. The terminology has changed several times, but basically they are there for future use in nuclear weapons.
DT: Does that include some of the earth penetrating missiles that they assemble there now?
00:19:33 – 2213
MB: After the—after the Gulf War, the military saw the need for earth penetrating nuclear weapons, and in the mid-nineties, one of the—the weapons at Pantex, that had several different models anyway, called the B-61, some of those were modified to be earth penetrating weapons. And they are—they are already deployed out in the—in the field. There’s current—in the current budget—the current federal budget, which is still sitting in Congress, but to be imminently approved, I think, there’s plans to remodify another bunch of the B-61’s and presumably, they’ll also be made earth penetrating
00:20:28 – 2213
weapons, and there are two other weapons programs that are being upgraded in the current federal budget. So from that period from, really, ’91—’90 or ’91, when—when work began at Rocky Flats, Pantex used the pits that had already been produced and finished up assembling those. But after those pits were used, the work was—was disassembly of—they began the START, the weapons that were agreed to be disassembled under the START treaties. And except for those B-61’s that were modified, the major work has been disassembly. That will change as these new programs come online, the upgrades.
DT: On the other side of Highway 60, you have the Peace Farm, which predates a lot of this disassembly work. Can you bring us back to the beginning of the Peace Farm and who was involved and why it was created?
00:21:47 – 2213
MB: In the early 1980’s, a group of peace activists from Texas and Oklahoma met in a retreat, and one of the things that we realized was that most of us knew more about Rocky Flats and Hanford and the Nevada Test Site than we knew about this little weapons assembly plant that was sitting right in our own state. So we decided to make that a—a regional focus for our work and began doing demonstrations and peace camps yearly at Pantex, beginning in the early 1980’s. We realized that, both for our own information and for our credibility and—and accessibility to the community, that we needed to be here on a permanent basis, year-round basis, rather than just coming up for a
00:22:47 – 2213
week in the summer and leaving, coming up for two or three days on a weekend here and there and leaving. So, Les Breeding, who had been raised in this area, in—in Hereford, and his wife, Cindy, decided to look for land in the area and to move back. He was in medical school in Fort Worth at the time, but agreed to move back to Amarillo and do that. There was already a group here who was watching the nuclear trains, and so they began working with them as well as the—the regional peace activities and…
DT: What group was that?
00:23:31 – 2213
MB: I don’t think they ever had a name. They—the—the person coordinating it was a woman named Hedy Sawadsky, and she was sent here by Men—by the Mennonites to do—to do just that. And she worked with a handful of other people in the community to watch the nuclear trains. Which, in fact, were running on that—that track that—that we’re hearing behind us. They found this land and in the fall of 1986, Les’s—Les’s father was a—was a veteran from the Korean War, so they—he had—he could get loans through the Veterans Land Board. And although his father and mother weren’t really involved in—in the Pantex protests, or even necessarily supportive of them, they agreed to be the signers on the loan that bought this twenty-some-odd acres, almost twenty-one acres. And so the loan is still being paid for by the Peace Farm to the Veterans Land Board.
DT: Some irony there…
00:25:00 – 2213
MB: Some irony there. They moved onto the property that—that winter. At the time they bought it, it was a—a wheat field. Began adding—bringing in the electricity, drilling the well, putting the first mobile home on the property and—and the road into it and making it usable for activities. And the first public activity here was a Mother’s Day Women’s Peace Camp in—Mother’s Day of 1987. And we’ve had activities—the—the—the Peace Camp, which had been along the road in front of Pantex’s front gate, shifted its base to here. And we would go over there to do demonstrations, but do the workshops and—and camping on the—on this property instead of along the bardage.
DT: What form did these demonstrations and truck watches, I’ve heard of those. What kind of events were done here?
00:26:15 – 2213
MB: It’s been just a really wide range of events include—from the peace camps themselves, to watching the—the nuclear train when the train was running, when weapons were being shipped by train which ended also in the very early nineties, ’91, I think, to watching the trucks go in and out and tracking the routes of the trucks. Les would be able to see and—and Hedy, would be able to see the trains being assembled on the plant site, you can see that from the east side of the plant. And they could tell
00:27:00 – 2213
when they were being put into configuration for a shipment. And when the shipments began to move, they would alert protest groups along the tracks, they would meet the train at various points in—with signs and banners and, occasionally, civil disobedience, but—but primarily just, I think, legal demonstrations. All the way up to—at that time, they were running the—the trident warheads up to Bangor, Washington, to the ground zero group there, where the civil disobedience actions took place. But the alert that the train was starting came from here.
DT: And did these activities change after the collapse of the Soviet Union and to the Cold War?
00:27:51 – 2213
MB: Yeah. They changed pretty radically. Because then the—well, a combination of the Cold War ending and the—and the Rocky Flats collapse, when there were no new—there was no new material for nuclear material to be assembled with. It was—it’s pretty hard to protest them disassembling weapons, that’s—that’s what you wanted them to do all along. So the focus shifted for some time to how they were disassembling, how they were storing, and the environmental issues that had been left behind by the—by the legacy of the Cold War work.
DT: Is that more of your focus now, for worker safety and the contamination of the aquifer?
00:28:46 – 2213
MB: We’ve—we’ve done a lot of work on—on contamination of the aquifer and contamination of the soils, less with worker safety, although we’ve certainly done some. Because the plutonium was here, handled in a—for the—almost—almost entirely handled in an enclosed form, there was less worker contamination than at many of the other sites where they were handling raw radioactive materials. The potential for catastrophe is probably greatest at this plant than any other plant, but the day in, day out work is—is probably more safe than—than any of the other DOE facilities, in terms of impact on the community and workers.
DT: What is the catastrophic risk that you see?
00:29:49 – 2213
MB: One or more of the nuclear weapons exploding in—in disassembly, or in transit in or out. Something happening to the plutonium pit storage areas. The—the plutonium pit storage areas were right on the flight path to the Amarillo airport and about four miles away, so planes were coming down in a landing pattern just over where all of those plutonium pits were stored. That wasn’t taken very seriously until after 9/11 because it was considered that the chance of an accident was so remote at that particular point that it was an incredible scenario, although if a large plane hit it, you know, the results would be—even the DOE admitted, the results would be catastrophic. They thought the likelihood of that happening was so small that it was not a relevant question.
00:30:54 – 2213
Nevertheless, they did divert, before that, civilian flights away from that. Military flights doing touch and go landings, in training here at the airport, does—did still fly over the site until 9/11. And now most of them have been diverted also. Although that—though, you do still see military planes directly over the site.
DT: You talked about some of the risks of what might happen. Can you tell me about some of the hazards that really came into reality? I think you said there was a tritium release at one point.
00:31:37 – 2213
MB: Mmm-hmm. There’s—there’s been one high explosives accident at which workers were killed. And that was really the first time that the plant—during those years from the 50’s up until that—that first high explosives accident, the plant was very secretive about what it did. Even workers who worked at the plant weren’t allowed to tell their families that they worked on nuclear weapons. Now most people kind of generally knew that, but it was never officially confirmed that that was what was—was happening out here. They weren’t allowed to tell their doctor’s or their—their wives or their children what they actually did. There’s also been the tritium release which injured some workers, there were no—there were no immediate fatalities from it, but there’s still one of the assembly—disassembly cells that’s too radioactive to be used from that—from that tritium accident.
DT: Can you tell how those two incidents happened?
00:33:00 – 2213
MB: I can’t. I—there’s—I don’t—I don’t think we have enough information to tell you. It’s—it’s classified. It’s all classified information, except what they had to release after the high explosives accident to reassure the public that there was no release of radioactivity and after the tritium accident to try to reassure the public that it was a small enough amount that no one had to worry. At the time, they had no monitoring equipment, though, so no one really knows what the—what the levels were. And—and after the accident, when they—they, of course, they immediately sealed the cell. After the workers were out, they sealed the work area. But some days later, they vented the—
00:34:01 – 2213
the tritium in the cell again and there were no monitors to record how much was vented, what direction it went, anything like that. Nor were neighbors around the plant warned that that was going to happen.
DW: How big is the residential community that surrounds this area within a mile range, or five miles?
00:34:22 – 2213
MB: Within a mile, it’s pretty small; I would say fewer than fifty households. Within five miles, you begin to pick up some of the—the Amarillo population, the beef packing plant, the school system, the prison might be a little more than five miles, the airport would be within that—about five mile range. So you’re numbers would be higher there.
DW: The fact that we’re like in somewhere near Tornado Alley, did that figure into any of their safety concerns?
00:35:03 – 2213
MB: No.
DW: Have you had anything that came near or went by?
00:35:08 – 2213
MB: I—yes, I’ve seen tornado—from here, I’ve seen four tornadoes go across the fields over there. But the assembly cells themselves are underground. The plutonium storage areas are bunkers that are—are earth bermed, they’re concrete bunkers. They’re on ground level but they’re earth-bermed over them. So they’re—they have some—some protection from hurr—from tornadoes. The most vulnerable for tornadoes would probably be the security systems and the guards on the guard towers.
DT: You mentioned that some things had changed after 9/11. Can you talk about how practices or concerns have changed?
00:36:08 – 2213
MB: Before 9/11, workers entered and exited the plant from both the east and west gates. After 9/11, they’ve closed the west gate to entering traffic, workers still exit there, but they can’t enter from that side. They’ve put barricades up so workers enter—have to enter the plant very slowly and through very clear channels of traffic. So there—it’s—it’s a much slower process of getting in and out of the plant. For a while, they adjusted shifts to account for that, staggered them like thirty minutes apart, so they could clear one group before the next group started in, rather than having all twenty-six, twenty-seven hundred workers hitting the—the plant at once. The guards have been retrained. They—
00:37:10 – 2213
they carry more weapons and have anti-aircraft weapons on the site now. For a while, and I’m not—and I’m assuming that they’re still there, although I see them less often, there were routinely one to two planes in the air doing surveillance of—of aircraft in the facility of the plant. Now they were far enough out that you couldn’t always see them, I mean they—by the time you get to the perimeter, it’s too late. So they were, you know, thirty, forty, fifty miles out. But surveying the air space around the plant continuously, 24/7. And I—I believe that those are still flying.
DT: Maybe you can talk about some of the less spectacular, but maybe equally significant, problems. I understand that there had been a series of leaks of industrial solvents and heavy metals and so on, and radioactive materials. Can you tell about that?
00:38:25 – 2213
MB: During the—during the fifties and through the sixties, the waste management practices of industries generally was pretty bad. And for DOE facilities, which had the—the cover of National Security and the pressure of the Cold War, they were really terrible. So, most of the material was just either buried in shallow landfills or burned at what was called a burning grounds. And it was just open air—totally open air burning of all sorts of—of chemical and hazardous wastes and—and excess high explosives material. They still do open air burning at the burning grounds, the quantities are less and some of the material is—is—is burned in a se—semi-covered shelter, it’s not completely enclosed but it has a top on it. The consequences of that were large amounts of—in one area, particularly around the firing sites where some testing was done—not nuclear testing—
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of—of those—of bombs themselves, but testing of the components and particularly the high explosive components, left a large amount of—of uranium on the ground. The solvents, both at the burning grounds and from what was dumped into the—the—the ditches and playas and—and into the landfills, has—has leaked down and contaminated both the, what’s called the Perched Aquifer under the plant, and the Ogallala below the Perched Aquifer. The—it includes high explosives themselves, several different kinds, it includes solvents, quite a bit of chromium, some mercury, some increase in—in gross alpha and gross beta radioactivity. But none of that has been—none of the radioactivity has substantiated off site. The primary off-site groundwater contamination is the high explosives and the chromium, and the—the volatiles, primarily TCE, but including benzene and toluene.
DT: Have there been any anecdotal or statistical studies to say that there have been health effects from these low-level background?
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MB: Oh, a neighbor—a neighbor on the north side of the plant, a woman named Jeri Osburn, did for a while maintain a cancer map, where she just had a map of the area where she put pushpins of different colors for people who had—had, either contracted or con—or died of certain kinds of cancers. And the—the state statistics show increases in some kinds of cancer in the area. Workers, sorry, not workers, but—there—well, there are—there are workers who have beryllium damage, lung damage from berylliosis, from exposure to that. And neighbors who have had hives and—and other reactions like that to the contamination in the groundwater.
DW: So with all this injury and sickness, and chromium, has there been an Erin Brockovich situation that has arisen in this area where the lawsuit was fraud. I know, it’s hard to go against the federal government, but it’s civilians impacted. Has there been anyone who’s made effort or movement in that direction?
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MB: There are some neighbors; I believe there are five on the north side, who are part of a lawsuit on the groundwater contamination. They have property where some contamination has been detected. But that—that hasn’t been resolved yet, it’s—it’s hasn’t had any public court activities on it. And there are some neighbors now who are also on the north and east sides who are wanting to negotiate a buyout with the Department of Energy. Their—their property—banks will not loan money on their property anymore they—the—because of the risk of contamination. They can’t get buyers for their houses because no—no banks will loan them money. So they’re negotiating—trying to negotiate a buyout with the Department of Energy. But that’s
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also—the funds for that are hung up in the—the current federal budget and no one knows what—what’s going to be available or not until Congress finally passes the 2003 fiscal year budget.
DW: What was the relationship between this community in Amarillo, of residents, and the changing attitude from, well we’re in this because it’s national defense or it’s good for—well, it’s not good for the tax base because it’s not like a utility, as we discussed earlier, that brings money to the community. So you have the peace people over here, you have the people with the jobs over there, and I’m saying, any angry words?
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MB: Oh, more than a few. On the whole, though, the—the neighbors have supported the work at the plant because of the national security issues. That somewhat changed in the early 90’s when the rock—when the Department of Energy was doing what they called a Reconfiguration Study and the—the Amarillo Chamber of Commerce and a—and another booster group called Panhandle 2000 offered to sell any land around Pantex, which of course, they didn’t own for—for expansion of the plant without having talked to any of the neighbors about that and to use their powers of eminent domain, if necessary, to get whatever land might be needed for that expansion. That really put a serious split between the neighbors and the city of Amarillo that hasn’t healed and—and
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probably won’t for some time. The—the groundwater contamination has also driven a—a wedge between some of the neighbors, particularly those on the north and east side who are affected, and the plant itself. But even then, some of them want to be treated fairly, but they don’t really object to the—to the plant’s mission overall.
DW: So aside from those technical issues, economics, or chemistry, on a moral and ethical level over these decades, especially the 80’s when the—in the Reagan era, the peace movement was stronger, how angry or how loud was the contentiousness between peace people on this side and the pro-military people on the other.
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MB: There were—there were small hostile acts at some of the peace camps. People would drive by throwing eggs or throwing, one year, firecrackers, but there was no really major violence, no major confrontations. The primary opposition came from a religious group in town who believed that—and—and I know how bizarre this sounds. I didn’t believe it until I heard them, too but that nuclear weapons were part of God’s plan for the—the rapture, the apocalypse. And that, by protesting the use of nuclear weapons, we were actually interfering with and delaying God’s plan for the new millennium. And they—and they protested regularly on that basis, they protested our peace activities regularly on that basis until we moved to the Peace Farm and they had to set their speakers up out on the highway, which, of course, made them totally ineffective.
DW: Do you feel there was harassment from the government? Do you feel they had their snoop people out or their snitches was—you know, I’m not saying that it was totally like the Cointelpro thing of the sixties, but you know, that they kept on eye on you because they—or were they never really worried about you? Well, you know, those crazy people, they’re not going to amount to much. Were you taken seriously by them?
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MB: I think so. When we—when we were at the gates, they routinely would photograph license plates of everyone there, photograph people who were participating in the events. When we moved over here, again they would try to—to get access to the car tags. One year, they drove through the—down this road through the camp, and we filed a—a protest with the sheriff. We protested to the guards as they drove through, the security people as they drove through and then later, with the sheriff, who upheld us that—that they did not have rights to access to the property. But they still do perimeter checks in the area including around us.
DT: Do you a distinct relationship with DOE versus the contractors at Mason Hanger?
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MB: For—for most of the plant’s history, it was Mason & Hanger. I believe the original contractor was Proctor and Gamble and—and people in the Amarillo—longtime residents of Amarillo still jokingly call it the soap plant, even though everyone knew it wasn’t making soap. They might not have known exactly what it was making, but they knew it wasn’t—didn’t have anything to do with soap. Then Mason & Hanger took it over and operated it up until a little less than two years ago. It’ll be two years, I think, in either January or February when BWXT [BWX Technologies] became the primary contractor, the managing operating contractor. It’s always, I think, been easier to talk directly to the DOE people,
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Department of Energy people, than to the contractor personnel. They’re—I think the contractor personnel are less sure of what they should and shouldn’t say, both in terms of classification and in terms of just public relations issues. That’s—it’s clearer for the DOE people what they couldn’t—can and can’t say. So they’re more willing to talk about things at the plant in areas where they feel like they can talk about them. Of course, one of the impacts that really began before 9/11, almost—almost a—a year before, but increased sharply after 9/11 was the access to information. And—before that, we had for several years, from the early 90’s until—well, from the beginning of the
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Clinton Administration up until about a year before September 11th. A lot of documents were declassified, there were many—there were shelves and shelves in the public reading rooms of information. The Citizen’s Advisory Board had access to a great deal of information, which now is all totally closed off. There’s less on the shelves of—of the reading room than any one of these shelves up here. It’s a—they literally moved in, put in it boxes and trucked it out after September 11th. It’s much more difficult to get (?) information. And e—and even strictly environmental information is harder to get. You have to fight like tooth and nail for every little scrap.
DT: You rely not just on paper but also people’s experiences? Do you have whistle blowers that will help you?
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MB: There are a few whistle blowers, one of whom we have a pretty good working relationship with and when we have technical questions can go and talk to him. None of them are very recent; all of them left employment more than two years ago. There are none—there are none who are more recent employees than that that we have any ongoing contact with. And to my knowledge, there haven’t been whistle blowers in that period.
DT: And the whistle blowers that you’ve had help from, do they act confidentially or were they able to come out into the open?
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MB: Well, after they left—after they left the plant, except for what—for classified information, they were pretty open, yeah.
DT: What kind of stories did they tell?
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MB: Well, when we’ve dealt with workers at the plant who are still employed, almost always it’s very secretive and I don’t think there’s been any of that since September 11th. But before they would sometimes call and we would get a message and talk, or get a message on the answering—answering machine about something that they saw as a problem. But without leaving a name or a number. And then we would have to go to the public information at the plant and—and try to check it out, do—figure out, try to get information on the issue they were talking about. And they were always right.
DT: What sort of things did they tell you about?
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MB: But it was very, very secretive. Spills of things that the plant hadn’t admitted. One—bird die off, just a—a massive amount of—the—the road in front of the plant was just littered with—with birds. And we still don’t know why. I got a—a phone message that it was there. I went and looked at it, came back, called Parks and Wildlife, and by the time they got there all of them had been picked up, the—the highway was empty again. And it could have been, you know, perfectly natural, like some disease that had gone through the birds or it could’ve been something released that they had flown through and I—I don’t think we’ll ever know that. I don’t think we’ll ever have any official knowledge that it happened. And I didn’t have photographs, so.
DT: What sort of reaction did the whistle blowers get when they went on record, if they ever did come out publicly or if people discovered that they had come out privately?
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MB: Very hostile. Very, very hostile. There are several who have—are still in court, have a pending lawsuit that was ruled for them at one level, against them at another level, and it’s still on the third level of appeal.
DT: Harassment? Loss of job, promotion?
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MB: I think—I think once you’re a whistle blower you really almost have to leave the plant. The—both the harassment issue and—and safety issues. Plus the security issue, the—once you’ve blown the whistle, the—the plant’s less certain how—how—how secure your security clearance is. And you—and you have to have security clearance to work in most areas of the plant. If you don’t have it, you’re moved into a very low skilled, low paying, gofer kind of job, so.
DT: I see we’re coming toward the end of this second tape. Can you help me sort of sum up what your view of Pantex is and its environmental future for this community?
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MB: The plant believes that it can have all of its investiga—environmental investigations—RCRA [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] environmental investigations done and be in remediation by 2006, which is a—a drop dead date with the state regulatory agency or they have to go under some different standards, which are, in—in some cases, stricter. I think the truth is that no one knows how to clean up the aquifer itself. And that—and that while they’ll continue to work on it with the pump and treat system and—and some bio remediation systems, they may manage to get the perched aquifer offsite to a reasonable level. I don’t think anyone has a clue what to do with the Ogallala; it’s just too deep and too big, you know, to—to—to manage any kind of treatment for. Many of the other smaller
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problems, you know, they have done corrective actions on and at least, mitigated, if—if not truly cleaned up. The problem is that with the assembly work beginning again, the—the work of a new wea—up—new weapons upgrades beginning again, you not only have the legacy waste what they—from the Cold War years but you have new production waste as well and—and the—the risk of—of increased emissions. Well, they’ve—they have permit applications for increased emissions and the risk of—of accidents and—and spills from the new work.
DT: I guess another question maybe in broader terms; can you tell what you expect for prospects for peace and for environmental remediation in a larger sense? Not just here in Amarillo and at Pantex, but more broadly?
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MB: I think it—I think it would take a major shift in—in national policy to move toward peace. I think everything that the government is doing now is increasing the risk of war and the likelihood of—of war. Small-scale war is on a continuing basis and—small scale from our perspective, and possibly larger and—and more involved wars. And I think that would take, not just a policy change, but a change in the whole way the United States operates in the world. In the—in the nineties, two new states were added to the—the list who have nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan. I think that will continue, I think regardless of what we do, whether there is a—a—a nuclear weapons program in Iraq to stop or not, other states will continue to develop nuclear weapons as long as we have them and that, eventually, the risk of some of those being used in wars is very high.
DT: Do you have any advice for people who might see this tape about how they can mitigate some of the risk, or change the mindset? I mean, it seems like there’s a very self-destructive culture and I don’t know how else to put it. How do you deal with that?
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MB: I think we’re—we’re—we’re trading what we see as—as short-term security and short-term prosperity and—and losing sight of—of what really would create a more secure world environment and what really would create a—an environment—environmentally sustainable planet. And we would have to make the shift to not next month’s corporate sales report or the stock market six months from now, but to a long-term sustainable economy.
End of Reel 2213
End of interview with Mavis Belisle