In Ohio's Cancer Cluster, Workers Fight for Justice—and Transparency

“They hired the healthiest workers because it takes us longer to get sick.”

Maximillian Alvarez

Photo of Vina Colley in East Palestine, Ohio, on March 23, 2024. Steve Zeltzer

Read the full transcript below.

Vina Colley was Erin Brockovich before Erin Brockovich,” Kevin Williams wrote in a 2020 Belt Magazine article. Williams continues,

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.

In this episode, we sit down with Colley herself to talk about growing up in Ohio during America’s Cold War atomic age, her experience working as an electrician at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, and her decades-long fight to hold the plant and the government accountable for what they’ve done to her, her coworkers, and her community, and to get them the compensation they deserve.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Vina Colley: My name is Vina Colley. I am president of a group called Portsmouth Pike Residents for Environmental Safety and Security. We were formed in 1989 or 1987, and I also co-chair National Nuclear Workers for Justice. We’ve been here, I’ve been working on this for almost 39 plus years. 

I live 11 miles from the plant. My county is where the plant is, and I live in Scioto County. I was born and raised in Portsmouth, Ohio. I lived a normal childhood life. I went to school, rode motorcycles, was into sports and enjoyed my childhood and grew up not knowing about this plant being out there. And so when I grew up, I worked at various different jobs, my last job that I worked at was at the Shoe Factory in Portsmouth, Ohio.

I lost my jobs due to imports and they sent me to a vocational school and told me that I could either take welding or electrical work. Well, I decided to take electrical work, and as soon as I finished electrical work, I was working at a place called OSCO in town, and I was an electrician there for a couple years. And then I went out to what we call the A Plant”, which is the Portsmouth Gas Diffusion plant located in Piketon, Ohio. It’s the largest facility in the world. It has two of the largest buildings in the world, excuse me. And sometimes some of the workers you wouldn’t see em … The place is so huge and they had different shifts and sometimes you wouldn’t see these workers for a year or more, and sometimes you never saw the same worker ever. But when I lost my job and went out there, I thought I was pretty lucky to have this job. It was the highest paying job I ever had in my life. 

“I thought I was pretty lucky to have this job. It was the highest paying job I ever had in my life.”

And for some reason they would say, You won’t get as much radiation here as if you would get on a plane and you would fly.” So I never thought about anything about radiation, and the plant was called at that time, from 1953 to 1985, it was called Goodyear Atomic. So I thought they made Goodyear tar and rubber for tires because we had a place in town that had Goodyear tires that they sold. So I felt like it was a safe place to work. They gave me hard hats and safety glasses. They were always watching us to see if we had em on. And I thought, Man, isn’t this the safest place I ever worked at?”

Well, I was hired in 1980. I didn’t know in 1980 until I started reading some of the newspaper clippings back because I had kind of forgotten about it. But in 1980 when they hired me, they had 111 significant radioactive releases. I didn’t even know anything about those diseases in 1980, but they never had any alarms. The alarms never went off for the workers or the community. So I didn’t know anything about all these diseases.

But I was only there from 1980 to 83 before I started really getting sick. Had to come off work for a while and I was a healthy worker. This facility hired only healthy workers. They’ve been in production since 1952 until 2001, and we’re still not sure if they’re producing anything now or not because it’s such a secret. This facility was a DOE, which is a Department of Energy, but in the background, hidden. We were a DOD facility for nuclear weapons.

“I was only there from 1980 to 83 before I started really getting sick.”

Maximillian Alvarez: All right, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and the Real News Network produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network. So if you’re hungry for more worker and labor focus shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network. There are so many, and please support the work that we’re doing here at Working People because we can’t keep going without you. Share our episodes with your coworkers, your family members. Leave positive reviews of the show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts and become a paid monthly subscriber on Patreon for just five bucks a month to unlock all the great bonus episodes that we publish exclusively for our patrons.

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My name is Maximilian Alvarez and I am really honored to be on the call today with the one and only Vina Colley. And I promise you guys, you want to sit down and buckle in because we’ve got a really important conversation for y’all today. As you guys know and have been hearing from our recent episodes, there’s something really happening here with this coalition that has formed out of the wreckage of East Palestine, Ohio. 

And we have been there working with residents, working with unions, environmental groups and so on and so forth to try to bring people together to address the ongoing horror show that residents of East Palestine, Ohio are living through after Norfolk Southern’s train derailed and five cars worth of toxic vinyl chloride were vented and burned in and around East Palestine around February 3rd, 2023. And it was actually through the work that we’ve been doing there in East Palestine that I connected with Vina. And so I’m going to go into a little bit of detail here to explain that. So if you guys will forgive me, the intro will be a little long, but I promise it’ll be worth it, right? 

Because as you guys have heard from the compilation episode that we put out from the conference that we held in East Palestine a few weeks ago, I mean, there was a truly incredible gathering that happened there a few weeks back. And Vina was one of the folks who was there with us. And as I wrote in a recent piece for The Nation magazine, I gathered in East Palestine with those who answered the call to take charge of long, neglected efforts to get the care remediation and justice, these forgotten residents desperately need a call put out by the newly formed Justice for East Palestine Residents and Workers Coalition.

This alliance includes East Palestine residents, railroad workers, residents of other sacrifice zones like Piketon in Portsmouth, Ohio, people living near other rail lines, labor union representatives, environmental justice organizations, striking journalists and non-striking journalists, socialists, Trump voters, non voters, and so many more. 

We heard and saw firsthand that even though the derailment has faded from mainstream media headlines, East Palestine is not okay. And in many respects, life has gotten worse for the residents there. These people have been literally poisoned by corporate greed, exposed to toxins that continue to do irreparable damage to their bodies and their community. Many are still sick, still waiting for answers and aid from Norfolk Southern and the government, still fighting not to be forgotten. We discussed how to pressure Biden to invoke the Stafford Act, to mobilize and expedite federal FEMA assistance to residents near the crash site in the surrounding area, and how to pressure his administration to issue a disaster declaration for East Palestine, which would secure immediate government-funded healthcare for residents whose ailments and medical bills are piling up.

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But what was most powerful about the gathering was seeing this diverse working class coalition of capitalism’s forgotten victims sitting together and discussing the basic struggles, hardships, and enemies we have in common. Everyone shared their own firsthand accounts of the many ways that this country is falling apart at the seams, buckling under the weight of more than 40 years of corporate dominance, deregulation, disinvestment, and the systematic devaluing of labor and life itself.

We all showed our scars to each other and we realized we’re all fighting off the tentacles of the same corporate monsters, corporate politicians, and Wall Street vampires. Anyone who has experienced tragedy in this country or at the hands of this country knows how quickly this country forgets its victims. When will we rise together to say, We will be forgotten no more?”

So that is the question that we asked ourselves in East Palestine on March 23rd, 2024. And I believe we answered that question by the very fact of being there physically together in that room at the East Palestine Country Club. The answer is now. Now is the time to rise together. No one else is coming to save us, and we do not have any more time to waste.

And one of the many incredible human beings standing in that room with me and residents of East Palestine was Vina Colley. And like I said, I could not be more honored to be chatting with Vina on today’s episode. Now it’s going to become clear to you guys as this episode goes on, why it was so powerful for Vina herself to be at that gathering in East Palestine. But if you’ll allow me, I want to give you some more context here by way of reading at length some passages from a really great piece by Kevin Williams that was published in Belt Magazine in October of 2020.

And this piece is called The Poisonous Legacy of Portsmouth’s Gaseous Diffusion Plant.” And we’re going to link to it in the show notes. So in this piece, Kevin writes:

Vina Colley, a slight woman with a bob of thick blonde hair climbs into her white Ford Explorer. 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 Ohio’s Appalachia 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 in the US 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 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 and 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 claim 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, colleagues 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 the creeks. A child who died of leukemia, a whole family fell by cancer, an uncle with unusual tumors on his neck, a cousin with a stillborn baby, someone with kidney issues, and on and on.

Portsmouth’s hidden legacy has created a cohort of citizen scientists, homegrown Atomic Brockovich’s and residents who reel off statistics about isotope half-lives, transuranic neptunium and beryllium, like people elsewhere might talk about the weather or fishing. Pike County is one of the state’s most impoverished with 20% of the population living below the poverty line. According to 2019’s Ohio poverty report, neighboring Scioto County is in even worse shape.

With 23% living in poverty, the economics of the region have barely budged in half a century. Thousands of workers, a mix of contractors and employees work at the A plan, one of the only chances for a decent income. A recent hiring notice for a plant security specialist advertised a salary starting in the mid fifties, double the per capita median. Other jobs like a junior radiation protection technician require only a high school diploma and can make $19 an hour to start, gradually going up to $36 an hour. But for decades, Colley says, the perils of these high paying jobs were kept hidden. And those are the people Colley has devoted her life to trying to help.

So that’s what we’re here to talk about. And again, now you guys know why it is such an honor to not only be talking to Vina and for us to be listening to her, but why it was so powerful and so important to have Vina there with us in that room in East Palestine a few weeks ago. So with all of that upfront, let’s go ahead and dive in.

Vina, I got so many things I want to talk to you about, and I know there’s, we could talk for hours, so if we need to do this in multiple parts, we will. But we gave folks as much context as we could upfront to understand why we’re here talking, how it’s connected to all the other things we’ve been covering on this show, all the things that we’re trying to bring together in East Palestine. And I just really want people to know you and learn from you, and I want to learn from you and your struggle. But before we even get there, before we talk about all the horrific stuff that you and your community have been through over the past four decades, let’s go back to just before. So you said you were born in Portsmouth and that’s where you grew up, correct?

“We're all just here as people trying to not get poisoned by corporations.”

Vina Colley: Yes. And Portsmouth is about 20 some miles from Pike.

Maximillian Alvarez: So tell me a little bit about that. What was it like growing up in your childhood in that part of the country? Yeah, the Cold War’s going on, these nuclear plants are seen as the future and also the way that we’re going to defeat the Soviets. So that’s happening in the background, but you’re also a kid living your life. So just yeah, tell us a little more about what that was like, where you grew up, if you had a big family, what kind of kid you were and what you would do for fun?

Vina Colley: I had four brothers. One passed away with a small cell cancer, but we lived on Front Street next to the river. We are south of Columbus, about a hundred miles and right on the borderline of Kentucky and Ohio. And I grew up right on the river on Front Street. We went out and played, kicked the can and did all the normal things the kids did. My dad played music and when mom and dad both worked and I had the four younger brothers, I was the oldest, so I did a lot of babysitting. But we used to go down by the bridge and we would have bonfires and we would bake potatoes and play. And then in summertime we would play ball with softball or baseball. I had a brother who was really good at baseball. I mean, he was a good pitcher and a catcher, and he’s the one who died of small cell cancer.

Maximillian Alvarez: I’m so sorry for your loss, Vina, and I mean that goes for your family, your friends, your community. I can’t communicate enough how sorry I am for everything that you have lost, but as well can’t communicate to you just how inspired I am by your fight and your continued dedication to your community and to justice. 

And I think all of us are feeling really exhausted and scared most of the time these days. And just to know that you’ve been fighting through this stuff for this long really kind of gives us hope that we can do it too. And again, we we’re going to get into all that soon, but I just love hearing this and love thinking about a time before all this awfulness when you’re running around and playing with your friends, playing with your siblings, looking back on that time, does it feel like it was a genuinely sort of different time in America? Like folks are always saying, or do you think that that’s more just nostalgia talking and people are really looking fondly upon their own childhoods? I guess I’m just curious what the scene was like in those decades when you were growing up.

Vina Colley: It was different because we didn’t sit around and play on our cell phones. We were always outside playing all kinds of games and hardly ever watched tv. And then you only had the three channels and the TV wasn’t killing us full of poison like they do now. All the lies they want to and keep everyone at the edge of their seats, fighting family and friends over all this political stuff. We didn’t do all that back then. 

We had good times. I mean, we would sled. There was a big wall, a flood wall. We would take cardboard up there and we would use it as a sled and just as many fun things. And we’d play jacks and hopscotch and we were always busy. We were always happy. And we would go to the playgrounds and we didn’t have all this turmoil that we had now, right now, it’s hard to even talk to a family member over politics, especially if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. They have divided the families here over all this political crap is what I call it,

Maximillian Alvarez: Preach sister. I mean, I think that’s exactly what it is. And that’s what I was talking to Chris Albright and other East Palestine residents when I was there. I was like, all right, man, I’m the crazy socialist that Fox keeps telling you as the enemy. You guys are the white working class Trump voters that I’m told are the enemy. And yet we’re all just here as people trying to not get poisoned by corporations trying to raise our families, trying to make a living. And the ways that corporate media especially and our politicians of course, and the ways that they have managed to convince so many of us that half the country is our enemy, is just a really sad thing to behold. But again, it’s like just by being there in East Palestine with you and with everyone else there and seeing that all wash away, it does give me hope that we can cut through that crap. But that toxic stuff has been flowing through the air vents of our culture for decades, and it’s not going to be easy to just turn the clock back on that.

Vina Colley: That’s true. It’s just really hard. We have to look forward. We have to get rid of all the media people that are going out, all these lies. I know Fox News, I’ve watched Fox News, CNN and NBC. I watch all of em.

And to me, Fox has told so many lies to the families, that I can’t even watch it anymore. And of course they were going to be sued, but they can’t be sued because they claim they’re an entertainment entertainment show, not a news site. So to me, that’s just so ridiculous. I mean, if you want to report the news, you should report the news. People like you who are trying to get the real facts out, that’s helpful. That’s not pitting any of us against each other, but what you’re talking about is the truth. It’s about human life and what they’ve done to all of us. 

These big corporations, they don’t care. They don’t care about if you’re sick or if your family members are dying. They just want that money. They just don’t care. 

And this facility here isn’t any different. We had good jobs, had good money. It was such a secret that they would tell the workers, If you go into a beauty shop or a barber shop, you better not talk about it out here because some of these beauticians and barbers may be secret agents.” So we grew up in a lot of secrecy here in this town. You’re not allowed to talk about what goes on at the A plant.

Maximillian Alvarez: Wow. Wow. Let’s talk about that a little more. I wanted to ask, when you were growing up, I mean it sounds like the A plant was still like the place to go to get that good paying middle class job. Can you tell us a little more about your memories before you ever started working there? The influence that the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant had on the community, the role it played in town and yeah, other details like that. Even just this sort of culture of secrecy where you’re not allowed, they’re not supposed to talk about it. That’s pretty creepy.

Vina Colley: I think production started in 53. And by 1957, there were five workers that were in the hospital that were sick and dying from the plant. And the health department in the state of Ohio knew it because the union had written letters about this, but they turned their back on em all because of the jobs down here. 

And workers, when they used to come home, would take their boots off because they didn’t want to carry any contamination into their homes. But I didn’t know any of that when I was that young.

But as I talked to people from all this research, they told me that —I have a friend Dorothy Mead, who just passed away, and her husband, Gary Mead, she said that he used to come home and tell her not to let the kids touch his shoes or his work boots, but he didn’t think he was getting sick from the plant. And she kept trying to get him to quit, but he didn’t want to quit because he didn’t think it was his job. So about the third or fourth trip to the hospital, he told his wife, he said, Dorothy, I think you’re right. And it is my job making me sick, and once I get out of the hospital this time, I’m not going back. Well, he wasn’t able to go back because he died of leukemia. He actually bled to death.

Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus.

Vina Colley: So growing up around here, they had a place where you buy tires and it’s a Goodyear Tire and Rubber. And so a lot of us in the community thought that’s what they made was Goodyear Tire and Rubbers out there. So they have special tires that you can come in and buy on discount and everything was called Goodyear around here. So we had no idea. Most of us had no idea that it was a weapons plant all these years, not something that they made tires for. Goodyear. And the community, if you ask em any questions about the plant, they wouldn’t talk about it. So we’re not allowed to talk about it. What goes on out there is a secret. So it’s pretty much a town that was, they went to work, they mind their own business, and they didn’t talk about the A plant because they made good money there and they weren’t allowed to talk about it. They could lose their jobs if they did.

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Maximillian Alvarez: Wow. And do you recall, again, because like you said, you didn’t even know what was going on at that plant until much later. But I guess, do you have any memories from that era of how this country was talking about nuclear energy and nuclear plants? And I guess for folks in my generation who have only read about it in books, did it feel like this was an industry that people were excited to welcome into their communities and be a part of as this kind of nationalist project? I guess, what do you remember about the kind of culture around nuclear energy at that time?

Vina Colley: I don’t know too much about nuclear energy, but I know about patriotism. Everyone thought it was their duty to work out there, and they felt lucky that they could be part of this energy from there. But I don’t think anyone really realized that they were producing nuclear weapons at Piketon. Maybe some of the workers who understood it better, but the community really didn’t know. I didn’t know until after I got sick and started gathering all these documents. 

And that’s how I really found out in 1978 it was such a secret out there. The workers had dropped a cylinder and it ruptured and Uranium Hexafluoride was released into the environment and the water. But it happened during the snow season, so they were able to throw some of the snow on the cylinder and stop it. But there was a lawsuit filed by the community. It took 21 years to settle, and that incident was compared to Three Mile Island. 

Until this day, no one has ever been told other than if I put it on my Facebook, because if I find documents, I did have a web page, but they hacked me so bad that I couldn’t keep a webpage up. But I’ve been able to keep a Facebook up, and if anybody ever wants to know anything about Piketon, they can look up my Facebook Vina, V-I-N-A, Colley, C-O-L-L-E-Y, because no one can stop me from posting what I find. 

But this incident, like I said, compared to Three Mile Island — we’ve not been told today that we had this incident nor have we been studied for that incident. And when I got hired, in 1980, they had 111 releases and I didn’t know it until it all came out in the paper and researched and I helped the Dayton Daily News. I worked with them for almost two years on the story, and they came out with all of the releases in the paper. And so we didn’t get the Dayton paper here. So if you didn’t get the Daytonn paper, people still don’t know here. People still don’t know what’s going on at that plant. 

Maximillian Alvarez: Wow.

Vina Colley: We heard they wanted to start the centrifuge up and they did a test run in November, but we don’t know because it’s a secret. We don’t know if they’re still producing nuclear weapons. We don’t know what’s going on there, but there’ve been so many releases —remember that the Portsmouth facility is the largest facility in the world. We were supposed to be producing high assay uranium here, for weapons grade material, the highest assay that you could do. But in the meantime, what the workers didn’t know, and what I didn’t know is they were bringing transuranic waste into this facility and processing it from West Valley, New York and West Valley New York ended up being, the workers thought it was a uranium extraction plant and it winded up being a plutonium extraction plant.

So they were sending all this stuff here to pipette, and we were reprocessing it and being exposed to things like plutonium, neptunium, americium, strontium, cesium, you name it, we were being exposed to it without our knowledge, and we were not dressed to keep safe. 

Like they use hazmat suits now, but I don’t know if they use it all the time, but they do dress the workers up in hazmat suits. We were dressed in nothing.

And when I complained about the areas being contaminated, because I was cleaning electric equipment with trichloroethylene and they had this oil on electrical components, and I asked what it was, and they said it was just oil, just ordinary oil. And then when we get done, we had buckets of this stuff, we would dump it down the drains. So when I got sick in 83 and my doctor asked me what I was working in, he told me to go back and tell them to suit me up and to survey the area that I work in.

So I kept breaking out in rashes, and every time they put me on certain jobs and they’d come back and say, Well, you are better than the instruments that we have out here to pick up anything.”

And so they had to put me on different jobs and my boss had to keep me with him. And so in 84, 85, I’m working and they put me on this electric equipment outside and I could see these little gray particles flying around. And I’m pretty scared because I got pulled off this job because of my breaking out. And what they didn’t tell me was that this PCB oil was radioactive oil that was leaking all over the processing building. 

So once they put me outside and took these ceramic things off of electrical equipment and I could see these gray particles, and I put a mask around my mouth and a hanky, and I hurried up and took all those components out and called my boss and told him I was done.

So he came and got me in a golf cart and he took me up in a building, the 333 building, which is one of the buildings they’re getting ready to decommission real soon and put it in these dump cells. But he took me up there on the second floor, we’d been in this golf cart, and I said, where are we going? He said, Well, there was a radiation alarm that went off. We’re going to go check it out and reset it.” 

And before we could get halfway through that building, all this gray stuff came following us as fast as he turned around and took me back on the elevator. And we went down and I said, What just happened? What was that stuff?” He said, It was just a cloud of smoke. It was nothing.” Well, I wound up getting really, really sick again and had to go to Dr. White and he did a laryngoscopy on my throat.

And at the same time a guy named Mike who actually won a lawsuit against the plant, and another one named Jean Farrell, and my friend Owen Thompson, we wind up going to Dr. White here in Portsmouth, and he sent us down to Cincinnati to see a Dr. Michael Kelly, who was an occupational health and safety doctor, which I went to two weeks after this gray stuff came flying at us. And I had 2.12 fluorides in my urinalysis. And one of the products they had out here is draining hexafluorides, and they released a lot of fluorides. 

And so he said, I don’t know what’s going on out there, but you don’t need to go back to work.” So they put me off on leave in 85, and of course found a way to take me off of the workers’ comp in 87 because they sent me to a Dr. George Esman in Portsmouth, Ohio, and he felt like there was nothing he could do. They wouldn’t pay him to examine me. And at the same time, my stomach is swelling and getting big. And he said, He’s not paying me to check you out.” And so they took me off of workers’ comp in 87, and once they took me off of workers’ comp, the plant laid me off and kept me from getting 10 years then, but of course could you’re vested for pensions at five years, and they still cheated me out for five year pension. And so by 88

“They hired the healthiest workers because it takes us longer to get sick.”

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, if I can hop in there just because I want to take a quick half step back to make sure that listeners are getting that kind of panoramic view of what you were seeing and going through while you were working there. Because even just the image you were talking about, about being on that golf cart with a manager driving through this massive facility and then seeing this ghostly toxic cloud coming at you and then turning around and saying, Okay, job’s done.” That is just, the hairs on my neck are standing up thinking about it, especially knowing what we know now about what was going on at that plant. But like you were saying before, that you and so many others in the community, so many people working there still didn’t fully know what was going on there. 

So I was wondering if you could just sort of take us back to that time working there when you started there, what you remember as a worker going into that facility, the kind of things you were being asked to do? In this show, we talk to people in the service industry, healthcare workers, teachers, and we always love to just talk about, what is a typical day, week?

What are the things that you as a working person are dealing with on the job? Could you just tell us a little more about that, your memories of starting to work there, how big the facility was, what you were doing? Just give us that worker’s eye view of your time working there before you started getting sick and eventually had to leave.

Vina Colley: Actually, I was a healthy worker. I even had to go back to my doctor and they ran special blood work. I was so healthy, but that’s what they do. They hired the healthiest workers because it takes us longer to get sick. But I had nothing wrong with me whatsoever. I had pretty good healthy genes and I would rewind motors. I did conduits. I worked on relays, but they hired me as a second class electrician, and it was an apprentice where they put us on all the jobs. So I was in every building on the plant side and we’re talking, there’s 3,600 or 3,800 acres, and there’s all kinds of buildings. They had all kinds, they had two or three incinerators.

They would even get this black stuff from the steam plant on these people’s homes and workers would have to go out there and clean off their homes from the inside and out. And they did that when Goodyear was there, but they quit doing it after Goodyear sold out. 

But the workers were janitors. We’d go out there and we wore coveralls, just regular coveralls, and they started giving us, buying us boots to work at the plant with. And so we didn’t have to take them home, wear em home. And so I thought, Man, I never worked in a place that was so safe to work or had safety glasses.” They stayed on me. They gave us a pair of boots so we wouldn’t take our boots home in case we stepped in some type of contamination. Of course, they never talked about radiation being at the plant.

They actually said you would get more radiation by flying in a plane than working here. So I didn’t really know what radiation was at that time, other than taking X-rays or something like that. But for these people, I mean, they’re not human. They just let you come in and clean up all this radioactive material. And maybe not all the bosses knew, but I believe some of em did. And actually there’s about 10 or 12 safety guys who wrote the safety for the plant, all wind up dying of cancer. 

I didn’t know all this. And I worked on relays and I’d be in conduit and I’d go in these buildings and I would see a sign saying, You’re in a radioactive contaminated area.” And I said, Where’s this area at?” And they said, Well, it’s taped off over there. Don’t walk through the tape.”

So they made you feel like the radiation, if they had anything there, it wouldn’t be any contamination. It was within this yellow tape line. Well, my life changed in 83. I wrote a grievance to the Department of Labor, told them that I felt like there were more than 30 workers being exposed to radiation, but I really didn’t know what I was talking about. But actually down the road, I did know what I was talking about then, but back I didn’t know. And then when I got sick in 85, the Department of Energy sent people to my house and they asked me the same questions over and over, over, and mainly it was about that oil. 

So I told my husband, I said, It made me feel like they know something that I don’t know.” I said, They asked me the same questions about that oil in the trichloroethylene that I was cleaning with.” And I said, There’s got to be something more to this.”

So when I started digging into the records, I found out there was a congressional— our union in 1980 went to Washington, D.C.. They stormed a Senator’s office over the health and safety issues, and a guy named Bob Alvarez opened up his door to these workers. 

So they asked for a full investigation. And here I’m getting hired, and I know nothing about this until about 86 when I found out the union did that. But the office promised to help these workers and do an investigation. And when they came back to work, all they got was harassment.

And it was the largest workers in the world that went to DC over health and safety, radiation and safety violations. I think they had 576 violations at that time. 

Maximillian Alvarez: Wow.

“The office promised to help these workers and do an investigation. And when they came back to work, all they got was harassment.”

Vina Colley: And so Denny Bluefield, I have to say is one of my heroes. He was the president of the union. He just died a few months back with cancer, but he took that union up there, tried to get us help, and all we got was harassment. So of course he was no longer the union president, he still worked there, but this is what they do. Anyone who complains about health and safety, they harass you. They have these red phones in the building and they said, If you see this oil, you take this red phone and you call OSHA or the Coast Guard,” I can’t remember which it was, it might’ve been the Coast Guards and let them know. But what happens when you use these little red phones, you are calling directly into the plant to the DOE office on site.

And so they know automatically who the workers are that are starting to ask questions. I’ve been harassed, I’ve been threatened. They tried to get me out one morning saying that my daughter had been in a car wreck at four o’clock in the morning. And so I went back and I checked in her room and she was in there. 

I’ve had some of the workers here, this guy Lawson, whose house has radioactive material in his house. He told me and my husband before he passed in 2018, that the plant had a meeting on site and his friend attended this meeting and that they want to find a way to get rid of me.

So I mean, this is in 2022, they’re still wanting to try to get rid of me. 

And one of the union workers wrote in one of the Piketon papers saying If I was her husband, I would take out extra insurance on her.” And I’ve had my wheels — well, the bolt had been taken off of one of the tires, and luckily when it wobbled, I thought I had a flat tire and I stopped and checked it, but it had no bolts on that tire. 

And so I got shunned in the community a lot. People call thinking I’m a troublemaker, trying to shut down a plant, and that I didn’t know what I was talking about. And as I researched and found out, we had plutonium in the X 7 0 5 area, the E area where there’s an incinerator next to the building, and these workers were working an experimental job with plutonium.

They got so contaminated. One worker told me that he had colon cancer and they got so contaminated, they sent him to Oakridge for several weeks to get their body counts down.

So you don’t hear these kinds of stories because the workers, you know how men are, they go to work, they mind their own business and they go home. And so when they get home, they’re not supposed to tell their families anything about their jobs. And these workers told me that they had to get their body counts down because they worked in experimental plutonium at the site. 

When the compensation bill came down in 1993 in a public meeting, I said under an affidavit, I told them in 93 that they had plutonium at the site. So it’s in an affidavit and it’s in their documents that I told them in 93, they had plutonium. Of course, a lot of the workers, some of the workers knew they’ve had it since 1953, ever since they did the first production.

But it was 1999 that I was working with a lady named Mary Bird Davis with the institution of uranium wives. And she read the documents and she understood them, and she got a call and said, We’re getting ready to break a story about Paducah, Kentucky having plutonium at the site.” And she said, Well, we had plutonium at Piketon.” And she called me up and she said, Vina, I just got a call from a reporter down in Lake Kentucky and they’re going to break the story in the morning about plutonium at Piketon.” The workers, three workers at Paducah must have filed a lawsuit and someone leaked it to the media and that’s how it got out. And so they knew that I had always mentioned plutonium at Piketon. So when they called Mary, she called me and she said, They’re going to break the story first thing in the morning, Vina.”

And I said, Great, Mary.” And she said, But the problem is they gave me credit and not you.” I said, Who cares, you have a national group that you work with, who cares as long as the story gets out about the plutonium?”

And so they broke the story the next day, and it was at the same time as Paducah. And they did one story about Paducah and Portsmouth breaking this story simultaneously. And so when the story broke, they claimed that Piketon had one cylinder that came through that system that contaminated the plant with plutonium. It was not a lie. And they downplayed us. And then I pushed our representatives. I want to say thank you to Ted Strickland at that time, who was a Democrat and then joined George Barnovich up. He was a Republican up in Columbus. They all pushed, and especially Ted, he pushed to get us in that compensation bill.

And this compensation bill is called EEOICPA, the Energy Employee Compensation Act. They named 22 cancers in this bill. And if you have one of 22 cancers in this bill, you automatically get compensated for your cancers, anywhere from $150,000 to $400,000. Well, they didn’t want to put Piketon in it, but we got em in there. And so we wind up being an SEC site, which means a special exposure cohort’. And when we were getting tested all the time, I know they did a lot of tests on me … [but] in order to get a good test, you would have to take a test in the morning when you came and when you left, but they never did. They might have given one urine test.

Now, one thing that they made a mistake on with me was they put us in these in vivo because back in the seventies and eighties, women really didn’t work at the plant. So they put me in an in vivo. And when they did that, I didn’t get the records until just a few years ago. It shows that I have Neptune and magnesium and cesium in my lungs, and they knew and they never told me. 

So I’ve had my records locked up a few times and had to get em unlocked, and each time I get em unlocked, I get something in my records that I didn’t get before, and they eventually send me these records on these three in vivo. And what they do, they measure your weight, they measure your neck, and then you lay in this machine, like laying in an MRI, and it counts your body count of all of this radioactive radioactivity in your body, and neptunium is radioactivity and americium is radioactivity.

And so my counts were going up each year that they did it. They did it from 82 to 85. They check your weight. I was always like 139, but I went to 235 pounds in three months. I swelled up like a big balloon. I’m down 30 or 40 more pounds, but it doesn’t come off of me. 

I think the thyroid and the radioactive material caused my immune system to do a lot of things to my metabolism. And the government has admitted that they gave me lung disease, it’s not curable. They have omitted that I have neuropathy. They have omitted that I have congestive heart failure. They have admitted I have digital heart failure, nerve damage from the neuropathy. I have lung nodules just like many of these workers have, and I’ve had four tumors removed. A total hysterectomy. I had a tumor removed from the back of my neck. Three were in my ovaries. And so at the age of 32, 33 is when I had to have a total hysterectomy. They removed the three tumors. 

Later, I had a tumor in the back of my neck and it was removed. [My doctor] had my tumor frozen and sent it to a doctor up in Canada to have it analyzed. But at that time, the doctor was checking the plutonium and he didn’t think that the gas diffusion plant had plutonium in it because we weren’t supposed to. So he set my tumor on a shelf and then it got confiscated. So I don’t know where that tumor went. It’s like a nightmare. 

[My doctor], I met her through the Depleted Uranium Group. During the Gulf War, they used armor piercing bullets and they even shot at a tank. And we have a kid here in McDermott that was in that tank and got burned up, and the government lied to his family about that. His name was Tony Applegate. He went to school with my kid, but he was in one of those tanks that was shot with these bullets. And eventually a senator got the records for Tony’s family and they had to tell them the truth. He was burned up in the tank. 

The stories just go on and on about these communities and what you have to go through. My brother-in-law worked at the plant. He had a wooden leg and he got his leg contaminated and they had to buy him a new leg. And so he had these nodules like I have, and the nodules, something happened and it went into his lymph nodes and he got cancer and he died a horrible death, but he had cancer and he’d given his wife cancer. His son Troy just passed away three or four months ago, who had also worked at the plant. He had kidney cancer. But you just don’t understand the impact that these places have on families and they don’t really care. 

It was a big deal in 99 because they didn’t compensate a lot of workers. But the problem is there’s a lot of workers and a lot of survivors out here right now fighting for compensation for their families. We are not supposed to be dosed — dose means calculation of the chemicals that are in your body and the job you were on. Well, they can’t do that to us because they destroyed the records. Guess what? They are dosing families who don’t know anything about this just to turn down their families so they can’t get survivorship benefits.

Maximillian Alvarez: Let’s talk about this. There are two really crucial sorts of threads here that I want to make sure listeners are following along with. Because there’s, like you said, your life changed in 83 when you filed that grievance and you were getting sick. You got really sick in 85. You lost your workers’ comp in 87, and it’s been a process ever since then to essentially learn what you and your fellow workers and your community were being exposed to by this plant.

And then on top of that, there’s been the struggle for accountability, the struggle for compensation for people who were exposed to these things. Can we talk about that first one for a second and then connect it to the second part? Can we just go back to that, the mid eighties and that sort of period, what was it like trying to getting sick, feeling these effects, not knowing what was going on and then starting this lifelong process to try to figure out what was poisoning you and trying to get the government or the plant to admit that it was doing that?

Vina Colley: The plant, I don’t think is ever going to admit it unless we get the RECA Downwinders compensation bill. If the community gets it, it would be $25,000 to $150,000 for certain cancers, and they’re going to link fees to the workers’ cancers that they had. But with the workers’ cancers, like I said, these workers are still fighting for compensation. A lot of them are, I thought from 2002 until up 2010, maybe 15, to get compensation. Like I said, they locked my records up several different times, and I was lucky that I was able to get compensation, because this fight, it’s not cheap. I maxed out five credit cards and I couldn’t quit. I mean, it’s just like an obsession.

You just can’t quit until you ask them at the meetings, you say, Tell us what’s there. Tell us what you’ve done to us because maybe we can help you. Maybe we can give some suggestions or something, but we can’t do anything [like this]. We don’t know what we’ve been exposed to until you tell us, be truthful and be transparent.” 

The community would’ve been willing to work with them on this, but no, they’d rather just cover it up and pretend like you’re somebody crazy trying to shut the plant down. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” They have people who you used to talk to don’t talk to you because the company tells them that you’re crazy. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

But now those people are realizing that I do know what I was talking about, because they’re all losing family members. And so the compensation bill is a good thing, but it needs to be fixed because there’s workers who are still fighting for illnesses that they shouldn’t be because they are a special exposure cohort site. 

But it’s like a nightmare. And I’ve learned so much and so many different stories that sometimes I think I’m crazy myself. Who in the world’s going to believe you with all these things that you’ve learned in these 40 some years about that plant? Who’s going to believe it that I believe now? I mean, the workers appreciate me a lot more. They ask for help, and I help.

I don’t charge anybody, but I help put their records together if they need it. And then I have an attorney out in New York Hug Stevens who works on the EEOICPA Energy Employees Compensation Bill. And so if the workers don’t have the right paperwork before they file, they’re automatically going to get turned down. So it’s best that they know what they need before they fail an application, because once you get turned down, it’s hard to have it overturned but it’s not impossible. I’ve overturned my case many times, and so it’s not impossible and it can be done, but you have to have the right paperwork and you hire an attorney, and the attorney can only make 3% to 10% for helping these workers, which is a good deal. I mean, it’s not like some attorneys who charge you 33% and take a lot of your money and you don’t get the money, but these workers will get the money if they get the right representatives to represent em.

But then I go back and I think about all these releases I was working there and they never told us. And one of the problems at piping is we have uranium, hexafluorides. Fluorides are very dangerous — to your bones, to the animals, to the humans. And we knew this for 70 years. [For me], I felt like the fluorides, the plutonium, neptunium, americium, all of these products bond together with the fluorides, and that’s how I think a lot of it went off site in the air. This is not counting the creek and the storms, storms and all the creeks that they dumped into. 

And the 78th spill went down nursing home road and went into one of the creeks that emptied out into the Scioto River. From the Scioto River, 20 miles or less downstream is the Ohio River, so the Scioto River from here, where this plant’s coming, is going to the Ohio River, and from the Ohio River, it’s going all the way down to the Mississippi. So whatever is being dumped at Piketon is going all the way down to the Mississippi. So people all along this area will be affected by this plant and not even know it. 

There’s a direct pipeline that I found that went from the plant into the Scioto river for 70 years, and this pipe is being used again for whatever they’re doing at the plant. What they want to do is sell off this 80 acres of the land and claim that it’s not contaminated. They want to give it to the community reuse group, and they want to put two small modular reactors out here, and once they get the two small modular reactors back here, guess what? We are going to be reprocessing or recycling, whatever you want to call it, transuranics from all of the sites in the United States and foreign countries.

So it makes absolutely no sense to me to spend billions of dollars to clean up a plant and turn around to do this very same thing. But they’re given these 80 acres to put these, what they’re calling powerhouses … and they’re going to make a hundred and some thousand dollars off of this free land that they’re getting. 

I’ve offered to go out and take samples to see what’s in the land, but they won’t let me do that. They won’t let me have the dirt. And why I’m thinking about this all these years, people think that these facilities, that the NRC and the CDC and NIOSH and all of this is on plant side and the EPA and they come in and they take samples and take it home to study em.

But no one takes samples of the radioactive material at that plant other than the DOE and the DOD. What they do, they give all these agencies, people, NIOSH and OSHA people, and they try to do it by the book of NIOSH and OSHA. So none of these agencies have any jurisdiction over these facilities. So all these years I thought they had OSHA and NIOSH. They hire their own people for OSHA and NIOSH. The EPA does not come in, dig up the dirt and take the samples at the plant. The plant gives them paperwork and they read that paperwork. So who knows where they get the samples from because you cannot trust people, the DOE, nor as contractors because they don’t tell em.

We had one group here, I remember Owen Thompson, he was 42 years old and he died of a brain tumor. We went to a construction company here called Boone Coleman Construction. We talked to his secretary, Kathy Coleman, who’s now a commissioner in Portsmouth, Ohio. We told her that Boone Coleman’s workers were taking trucks into the plant. They were loading the contaminated dirt on the trucks, and had a plastic liner in the trucks. Piketon workers were suited up in their hazmats. The truck drivers were wearing nothing. 

There were either 17 or 19 family members of Boone Coleman Construction who died of cancer. Some were compensated, some are still fighting the plant for compensation. So right now today I talked to some truck drivers who are going in there. They are not suiting them up, so they do not learn from what they did in the past.They just continue to do whatever they want to do. 

Same that they have all these years that these new truck drivers, carrying the dirt, I’ll, I’ll tell you where the dirt goes. We fought not to have waste on site. We did not want to be a nuclear waste site. So the community didn’t want it. 300 people showed up, packed his room down at Shawnee State, 25 miles from the plant. We packed that room. We did not want this waste. They let it lay for a couple of years thinking everyone would just forget about it. And then they took all of our surrounding county commissioners, these areas surrounding county commissioners, and gave them permission to put this waste on the site. So now we have 12 waste cells out here, 12 of them. They disassembled the 326, the high assay building in open air, nothing on it, no canvas, nothing, just open air.

All this stuff is going into the air, into the community, into the surrounding areas. They took this stuff over and put it in one of those waste cells. Now they’re getting ready to tear down the 330 building, the building that I was in in that golf cart. They’re tearing that building down and they’re going to put it in a waste cell. We have 12 waste cells on site thanks to our county commissioners, no public input. It’s important who you elect in your communities because these people make an awful lot of decisions that you don’t like. We don’t like it. We should have never got it. 

Now all of them are pushing for these small modular reactors where we are going to be probably the largest hub. The nuclear waste that gets back to the railroad workers. They ship this stuff in and out. They’re not protected. I had workers tell me we got 25,000 depleted uranium cylinders on site that give off neutron exposures, bedding outside, decaying, stacked two or three high. If the whole plant— They cleaned up some other sites like Oak Ridge,and sent all this stuff to Piketon, 25,000 depleted uranium cylinders. They’re trying to convert some, I’m not sure if they’re successful with it or not because they don’t talk about the production still to this day. All that was still supposed to be a secret, but they’re storing these outside in the rain, rusty old, and we’ve had the most breaches with these depleted uranium cylinders than they had in Oak Ridge or Paducah. We had the most here in the Portsmouth site—

Maximillian Alvarez: What kind — ?

Vina Colley: Depleted Uranium cylinders. They’re huge cylinders and they’re sitting outside stacked — They were stacked on the ground. So when we kept complaining about it, they finally brought em up on railroad ties or something and took them off the ground and painted some of them and stacked them up. Well, now they’ve got em all over the outside of the plant just sitting there and decayed and they give off neutron exposures. 

Railroad workers told me they would sit on the train with these cylinders sat on top of these cylinders. So one of my friends told me that it was his job. He was loading, unload the cylinders, and we probably sat with the cylinders all day long. He died of cancer a couple of years ago. So the railroads are not taking safety precautions for their workers. And then I listen to the ones up in East Palestine, these workers, they want to lay a bunch of them off and who’s going to be overseeing that? These trains are equipped with workers who know what to do in case of an accident. It’s horrible.

Maximillian Alvarez: It is. And I know it’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s kind of the same principle, right? That the workers who were on that train that derailed in East Palestine, the first responders who were coming in from not only East Palestine but the surrounding area because it’s, again, this is a small town America, you need people from all over the place getting there. I mean, those were people rushing headlong into help. And a lot of them didn’t know what was on that train and what sort of fumes they were breathing in. Just like the town knew very little about the contents of those cars that were going to be vented and set on fire three days after the derailment. And as I hope people listening to this can hear, and Vina is doing such an incredible job pointing out it’s not just that workers at this plant were being poisoned and it sounds like knowingly or recklessly exposed to all of these things that we’ve been talking about for the past hour and a half.

But also this is not just staying there. I mean this concerns all of us in terms of the contamination that we may have already been exposed to for basically our whole lifetimes. I mean, everyone listening to this, we’ve got PFAS in our bodies. We’re basically half plastic at this point. This is the kind of stuff that accumulates in your body and your environment in your community, and by the time you realize what’s happening to you, it’s already too late. 

And I wanted to stress that for folks because that’s what we were talking about in East Palestine. We said, we can’t wait until a train derails in our backyard or a company admits they’ve been poisoning us. When everyone starts dying of cancers, we need to start banding together now and fighting to protect ourselves against all of this. And we got to band together as a class to do that and to see each other as human beings who don’t deserve this, whether it’s because of the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, or whether it’s because of a private corporation like Norfolk Southern people’s lives, our communities, our safety, our health that matters.

And yet we live in a society that just so routinely throws us aside, puts us in harm’s way, tells us to shut up when we’re developing these health effects and then just buries us and forgets us when we die of the cancers we were suspecting, we were developing the whole time. 

And Vina, I have two questions I wanted to ask you. Thinking so many things, and there’s so many more things I want to talk to you about, but I have to ask because you mentioned this and it’s like my heart was breaking hearing you talk about this, but as someone who, you’ve lived in this area your whole life. You were a former electrician at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in the early eighties. It felt like a good job, but then you went through this horrible experience, you developed, you were developing all these health effects, you were exposed to all of this radiation and just all, God, I can hardly rattle off all the things that you were exposed to. And then for four decades you’ve been fighting to tell the truth, to get accountability and justice and compensation. And it just feels so sad that now decades later, after you’ve been ostracized, after you’ve been threatened and people have been saying that you’re a troublemaker who’s trying to close the plant. Now some of those same people are coming to you years later asking you for help for applications because they are getting the cancers you were warning them about.

How does that feel? I can’t even imagine what emotionally that’s like to deal with to still, I mean, it’s incredible that you’re helping folks and you’re still fighting this fight, but I just can’t imagine what it must be like to have gone through this to be raising the alarm and ostracized for it. And now years later, it’s like people are coming back to you saying, you’re right. But what is it? You’re right because everyone’s dying and so many people in your community are dying of cancers at early ages or bizarre cancers. What is that like for you?

Vina Colley: When I hear of a kid who has cancer, he would give me flashbacks of a little boy. Last name was Ross. I remember his sister sent me a couple —and I still have the letter, a 50 page letter about her little brother and he passed away. And every time I feel like giving up, I think about the kids. There’s a little girl out there right now that’s got leukemia, two years old. Think about the kids. 

So you don’t think about all of the negative things that people say to you or whatever because they’re going to find out sooner or later they’ll find out. And what the workers say to me doesn’t bother me. It used to bother me because my brother-in-Law would tell my husband I was shutting down the plant and he wouldn’t have a job. So my husband, they used to play cars together all once a week and it got so he couldn’t even go over there because Gary felt like I was shutting down his job.

But there at the end, Gary said I was right the whole time. So it gives you a good feeling that people tell you that what you’ve been saying is right. But then on the other hand, you have mixed emotions because they’re dying. People are dying because the government doesn’t care. My government doesn’t care. 

I don’t know how to feel because I’m very patriotic. I have such a military background in my family. And so to hear that the government doesn’t care. Last night I went to a meeting in Piketon. It was supposed to have been a training session, but it wound up being a meeting and they were doing these forever chemicals, PFASs and they have a huge problem there. And I told them last night, they talk about the plastic in your body and all this, but they had a huge problem with it off site.

And I let em know that I took two samples out of the creek on Wakefield Mound Road and one of these samples showed positive for the PFASs. I said, it’s in one of the creeks on Wakefield Mound Road. And we had a problem. And then the commissioner was there from Portsmouth, Ohio, Brian Davis and I told him, You all have a lawsuit in Portsmouth over the chemicals and you never told the community.” To this day, they have not told the community. And I found a newspaper article and I put it on my Facebook and I told him last night, not only are we in Portsmouth, Ohio drinking this contaminated water, but we are piping it over to Kentucky because they had trouble with their water. And I said, You’re giving them contaminated water and it’s because you haven’t told the people … they’re drinking these forever chemicals.” How do you get to these officials? They just don’t seem to think. They seem to think they’re invisible. They’re not doing it. They’re not. It’s unbelievable.

Maximillian Alvarez: It really, really is. And again, this is what brought us all to East Palestine and that’s also bittersweet. And like you said, the emotions are very mixed because while as I’ve expressed on this show, I was so inspired and heartened to see everyone there, including you and the folks, also folks from West Virginia who are being poisoned by fracking, coal mining, people poisoned by algae blooms in Ohio, from the runoff from the hog factories, the CAFOs that we’ve reported on, people in San Francisco who are getting radiation poisoning, Cancer Alley in Louisiana, the uranium mining in Navajo nation. The very concept of a sacrifice zone is pretty horrifying in and of itself. And yet I think in a just society, the very concept of a sacrifice zone would not exist. 

And yet I feel like what brought us out to East Palestine, which is Pikeston, Portsmouth, so many other parts of the country, Curtis Bay here in Baltimore, these are sacrifice zones, zones that are being sacrificed, i.e.„ the people are being sacrificed, the environment is being sacrificed because of government negligence, corporate greed or some cocktail of both.

And even though these horrifying instances shock us and scare us, I think what we were all there to and recognized in East Palestine is like this is what they have in store for all of us. This is where the future is going for working people under this sort of just regime of letting corporations do whatever they want, letting the government ignore its own citizens even when they’re shouting for help and are fighting against being industrially poisoned. 

I mean, this is how bad things have gotten. And maybe that’ll finally get us to realize that the things that we think divide us are not important and they don’t actually divide us. The things that really unite us, like our right to breathe the air and drink the water and have our kids play in the grass without worrying that they’re going to be developing rare cancers because of some corporation that set up shop down the road.We want to build a life for ourselves and our families and our communities. 

And if we can’t band together on that basic human level, then I don’t know what hope there is for us. But I saw that hope in East Palestine and I see it in your fight that you’ve been waging for decades and the fact that you’re still going out there to these other communities to warn them and to help them use the knowledge that you’ve developed through so many decades of struggle, you’ve done more than one human being should ever be asked to do, and yet you have done it and we are all grateful to you for it, and we would not be able to build what we’re trying to build out of East Palestine now if it wasn’t for folks like you fighting this fight for so long, and so I just wanted to say that on this recording and really encourage folks out there to learn everything you can about Vina, learn everything that you can about this diffusion plant, read up on Three Mile Island. We’ve got to start connecting these dots and bringing ourselves and our communities in touch with each other so we can talk about how to fight this so we’re not fighting it alone in our own communities like East Palestine or Piketon and Portsmouth.

I mean, none of us can bear that load on our own, but if we all come together to help and speak as one, we may actually be able to break through. And so I just wanted to turn that into a final question, Vina, because again, we’re going to have to talk more because I could talk to you for days, but I’m so grateful to you for your time and for laying all this out for us. And I just wanted to ask a final question. If you could talk to listeners out there, why did you go to East Palestine? What do you want folks to know about your experience, why they should care about what we were all talking about there in East Palestine and what you have been fighting for over there in Portsmouth for so long?

“They're getting sicker. They're losing their homes, they're losing their family, and the railroad doesn't care.”

Vina Colley: When I heard about the story of East Palestine, it broke my heart because this is a community and it was obvious, so obvious to the eye and to the ears listening to it that this train ran, and it was like in a bomb that went off in this community and it’s a year with no response from the officials. That’s horrible. These people are suffering. 

I mean, I just saw a video where the girl was walking in the water and you could see the oil stuff come up out of the water and they’re breathing this chemical, and no one’s doing anything about it. They should not have gone a year without health insurance, without help for cleaning up this mess and getting those people and relocating them somewhere until they can make their homes safe again. Instead they’re letting them there. They’re getting sicker. They’re losing their homes, they’re losing their family, and the railroad doesn’t care.

Neither does it sound like any of our representatives care. It’s time that they help these people. It just breaks your heart really. I mean, I’ve lived it for 40 years. What they’ve done to my community people, this was a day something that they couldn’t help. And these railroad workers, I mean they were exposed too. This train just wrecked in a community that was unprepared. They had no training or hazmat training, how to protect yourself. 

And we let them, as a government, as a nation, live in that for over a year without helping them. It’s just heartbreaking. I think about Piketon and what they’ve done. They’ve done it to us for 70 years, but this is a DOE and a DOE site and it’s much harder to break them. It shouldn’t be this hard for those people there in East Palestine, not at all. And so it’s criminal what they’re doing.

And I want to warn these people, there’s people like the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that come into your community and they’re going to do all these studies, but these studies are bogus. We just got a release yesterday from ATSDR about Piketon and they should be ashamed of themselves for doing this study. They looked at everything they could look at and they knew they wouldn’t find anything in certain places. 

They left out … an epidemiologist study of Piketon and the surrounding county. We are the highest in the state of Ohio for cancers. Out of the 88 counties we are the highest, and out of the nation we are with a cancer rate here 50 percent higher — nationally we’re almost 80 some percent higher for cancer here. The government knows it and they’re ignoring it. And then they release this paper that should have been thrown in the trash, because this is the second time this group has come here and they were caught in lies. They don’t look for what— they look for places where they’re not going to find anything.

And here we would probably be stuck with this report, but we’re not going to sit back and take it. We are going to bash them. They need to know that they can’t come into communities anymore and try to keep their jobs and do what these corporations want them to do. The first time they came in here, they were caught in lies by the attorneys for the first lawsuit that took 21 years to settle. And so I still have that letter and I’m using that letter. They got caught up in lies then and they’re lying now. So we haven’t quite figured it out because we haven’t gone through the 90 some page report yet. But what we found in the first part of it was enough to say, Hey, don’t move this. Just throw this garbage out.”

I want to say that in 2017 we had a school in Zion’s Corner that was shut down because with the company’s own air monitors, neptunium and americium has been found in the school. Five or six kids at the school had cancers and they shut the school down. And would you believe today the school has got a chain link fence around it? It’s still there, but Piketon’s going to get money to build a new school. 

This is one school. Do you know how many other schools are within the two to three or four mile radius that they never have checked? And the other monitor that belongs to the company, this is a company monitor around this school that they shut down. The other monitor is in a place called Rearden, Ohio, 14 miles from the plant which picks up the same Americium and a Neptunium that this little school did.

And there’s several schools in this area like Valley Northwest in the air path of that air monitor. Anna White, the Secretary of Energy, knew about this other air monitor, went to Washington DC. She tried to get help for this community and they fired her. I know personally people that were in the office when she came out of that office crying, they fired her because she wanted to help Piketon. They don’t want her to help Piketon. And so not only in 2017, but a couple of press members … both have passed since then. They came to a meeting and told us that those ATSDR reports, the company reports showed that that school in that corner was radioactive. And so they went to the government agencies and they came out and told them that they didn’t have any problems and there was no problem at that school.

This was years and years ago. And somebody read the ATSDR report again and found that that air monitor was contaminated. I’ve had experts here. I’ve had Dr. Michael Keller, he’s taking samples now. I’ve had him in the creek and he’s in the University of Arizona and he comes and he’s taking samples and we’re finding a lot of contamination off site of Piketon. Dr. Joe Menno did an epidemiology of this area and found a high rate of cancer. And he told me, he said, Vina, I feel sorry for your people. In all my years I’ve done this. I’ve never seen anything as bad as Piketon.”

The other thing that’s going on right now is the compensation program. It’s about to run out of money … They were trying to expand the compensation bill. These ladies down in St. Louis, who live around a landfill, are trying to get added to the bill and they want to add Oak Ridge and Paducah, but guess what? They want to leave Portsmouth out again. So when I heard that was coming down, I immediately had a petition put on. And we got 300 and some names on it in my ground office and told them what was going on. And I said, They’re having a hearing right now in the Senate and they’ve left out the Portsmouth site.”

And so the office said, Send me all the documents that you can send me in a half an hour.” And I said, In half an hour, I’m getting ready to go for a doctor’s report.” But she said, Yep, we need them in a half an hour.” So Senator Brown got Senator Vance and they went over to the hearing that was going on in the Senate. Portsmouth was not on the write-up of the bill yet. But when the New Mexico Senator said, I’m talking to Brown and Vance and we are working on adding Portsmouth to this, but Senator Brown didn’t know about that. They were going behind our backs and pushed for Oak Ridge and Paducah the same way that they did with the workers’ compensation bill. And when I found out about it, I was able to get our senators in. 

So it’s just overwhelming. And we still don’t know if Portsmouth is going to be added to this bill because all of these corporate people have other plans for Piketon. So we’re hoping the council wrote a letter in support of RECA for the Piketon community and the Piketon board of commissioners have written a letter. The Community Reuse organization wrote one and shocked me to death. And the United SteelWorkers, the Union has written a letter, and I asked the Portsmouth County Commissioner Brian Davis last night to please write a letter of support on behalf of the people here in Scioto County. I live 10, 11 air miles— I’m in Scioto County, I’m not in Pike County, I’m in Scioto County, but I’m 10 miles from that plant in the air miles. So they want to wipe out Scioto County, they want us to be a nuclear hub and they don’t want to focus on Piketon.

Someone nationally was deliberately leaving Piketon off this compensation bill. And so we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t even know if they’re going to, if Congress by now, it went through the Senate and it’s in the House. So if any of your listeners know any of the representatives that we have in the House, bill … I don’t know all the members of the house, but if anyone in your listening area knows anyone that’s in the House to please ask them to vote for the RECA bill and especially add Piketon and Scioto County and the surrounding counties from the A plant. 

And so I think a petition really makes people move. I mean, this is the first time that other than the compensation bill, that our representatives have paid any attention to us. And it was with that petition. Maybe if the people of East Palestine put the line and it doesn’t have to come from them.They can come from all these national groups. I’ve joined all kinds of national groups just to get the word out about Piketon because we were not even on the map when I started this. And I brought to a big group called Alliance for New Accountability work on people living in the shadows of these facilities. 

And so I did belong to a military project. We worked on the depleted uranium and the Gulf War syndrome. So I’m begging your listeners to please help us get mentioned on this House bill and for them to re-up to pay the uranium miners and the Trinity. And we were a big part of Ohio was a big part of the Manhattan Project, but you don’t ever hear about that. New Mexico started in 1943 and I found out that the Mount facility in Dayton, Ohio also started the Manhattan Project in 1943

But for some reason nationally they don’t want to talk about Ohio. And Ohio played a big part, played a big part in the Manhattan Project. They just did that movie, Oppenheimer, not one word was mentioned about the Manhattan Project, Ohio being part of it. Not one word. So if we’re going to tell the story, we need to tell the whole story, see the whole picture because we can’t get help until we know the whole thing, the whole truth.

I testify for human experimentation. I testified in Washington D.C. and I testified in Cincinnati. They had a doctor in Cincinnati. People would come into the hospitals and I have a list of all the hospitals that were involved. I mean there was a Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus hospital, Dr. Sanger, people came into the hospital, he would inject them with plutonium to see how much they took and the government paid him to do this. Sad part about it is the government took away his money, and he continued to experiment on people, like you and me, go into the hospital, we would inject you with plutonium. And so he continued to do that. So when they finally paid these people money, the government would only pay the ones that they paid for him to experiment on. And all these other people that he did on his own got no compensation. He wound up dying of cancer himself. 

And the state of Ohio used this quack for compensation to evaluate workers. My friend Owen Thompson went to him and he told him that he had cancer or a tumor, but it wasn’t big enough to be caused by working at the A plant. No one died, like I said, at 42 for brain cancer. Dr. Sanger said he didn’t have enough exposure for his brain tumor to be related to the plant.

God has a way of taking care of people who don’t take care of their own. And Dr. Sanger was a doctor who wasn’t there to treat us and to take care of us. He did not take care of the people he experimented on. He even had a young attorney here in Portsmouth, Ohio that went to one of the hospitals. He was in his thirties and he was experimented on and he also died too. 

But I have a list somewhere of all these hospitals that did human experimentations. And if you remember the O.J. Simpson case, you remember when they were chasing him in this Bronco all over the place. The president came on national TV and apologized to these radiation victims and it was like a five second board. And then all day we watched a Bronco run around the streets by these people who were experimented on, got five seconds.

I’m sorry that we did this to your people in society. We just got everything mixed up in our heads or something. Our priorities. I remember our priorities of being a young kid was the family, the dinners and leaving our doors unlocked. We never locked our doors. People got along so much better, but we just seemed to be so much so corrupt now that we don’t care about our families and our neighbors. And I took care of my mom. I took care of my dad. I took care of my uncle. I took care of a few of my aunts, people that were sick. They never paid me to do this. I didn’t because they were my family. Nowadays, you can’t hardly get people to help your family. My kids, they helped me. I don’t want for nothing. A lot of families aren’t like that anymore. I miss that. I miss that. I miss that.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right gang, that’s going to wrap things up for us this week. I want to thank our amazing guest, Vina Colley, and as always, I want to thank you all for listening and I want to thank you for caring. Be sure to follow the links in the show notes if you’d like to learn more about Vina’s struggle and about the current fight to pressure policymakers in DC to include Ohio zip codes adjacent to the US Department of Energy site in Piketon, Ohio in the Federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act or RECA program. 

According to a March press release from Senator Sherrod Brown’s office, RECA enacted in 1990 provides a one-time benefit payment to individuals who have gotten sick or died as a result of exposure to radiation from atomic weapons testing or uranium mining or transportation. RECA is currently set to expire in June, 2024 absent congressional action. Senator Brown was able to secure a commitment from the bill’s sponsors to work to add impacted communities in Pike and Scioto County to RECA. Adding zip codes in Pike and Scioto County to the bill’s nuclear storage exposure provision would ensure workers and residents in Ohio, adjacent to the U.S. Department of Energy site and Piketon Ohio, are also eligible for compensation resulting from the improper storage of radioactive material.”

So that’s going to do it for us this week, y’all. We’ll see you guys back here next week for another episode of Working People. And if you can’t wait that long, then you know what to do. Go subscribe to our Patreon and check out all the awesome bonus episodes that we’ve got there waiting for you and our patrons and of course, go explore all the other great work we’re doing at the Real News Network where we do grassroots journalism, lifting up the voices and stories from the front lines of struggle. Sign up for the Real News newsletter so you never miss a story and help us do more work like this by going to the real news​.com/​d​onate and becoming a supporter today. I promise you it really makes a difference. I’m Maximilian Alvarez. Take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Solidarity forever.

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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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