What do a biker bar and nuclear waste have in common?

 

This editor's note accompanies the HCN magazine cover story headlined: "The Hanford whistleblowers."

---

I made one of my first forays into investigative journalism back in 1982, when I was working for the Arizona Daily Star. A police raid on a Tucson biker bar had degenerated into disaster: When the cops burst in to arrest the bar's manager, who was in the very act of selling cocaine, the manager opened fire, killing one. The other cops instantly blew him away. As I dug into the story, some Tucson lawmen took the risk of telling me that their colleagues had made mistakes: The first ones who came crashing through the door, guns drawn, wore plainclothes, not uniforms, and didn't identify themselves as police. The dealer most likely thought they were robbers trying to grab both coke and cash.

The cops who spoke frankly to me were whistleblowers – insiders who become aware of problems in the organizations and systems they're part of, and then go public with their knowledge, often risking their careers, in the hope that lessons will be learned and reforms will be made.

Since then, other whistleblowers – sometimes speaking anonymously or off the record to protect themselves – have helped me investigate a variety of troubled systems, including how corporations and government regulators permit a shocking pattern of worker deaths in Western mines and oilfields. (That story – headlined "Disposable workers of the oil and gas fields" – can be read on the HCN website.) Just last week, I received an envelope containing evidence of troubles in an alternative energy project – insider information, sent anonymously because the bosses might retaliate against the sender.

This issue's cover story – about the nation's worst nuclear mess, at the Hanford site in southeastern Washington – describes the extensive role whistleblowers have played there. Hanford stopped manufacturing plutonium for bombs and missiles in 1988, but the subsequent cleanup of waste and pollution has been mired in mishaps, cost overruns and general mismanagement – posing risks to workers and the public. Without the hundreds of Hanford whistleblowers over the years, we would know a lot less about the cleanup, and it would probably have been even less effective.

Hanford's whistleblowers have fed some information to tough investigative journalists, including Karen Dorn Steele at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., beginning in the 1980s; Eric Nalder at the Seattle Times in the 1990s; and reporters currently at Seattle's King5 TV news station, who are producing a series titled "Hanford's Dirty Secrets." This gritty, ongoing reportage delivers an important message: The fundamental problem with nuclear energy – its incredibly dangerous waste products – remains unsolved.

The whistleblowers I've met wouldn't necessarily be good dinner guests; though undoubtedly courageous, they can be obsessive and tend to be sticklers for proper procedures. Sometimes the charges they make seem reminiscent of Chicken Little's "The sky is falling!" But they are working on behalf of us all, and we owe them our thanks.

Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....