February 5, 2001
for more information:
Researcher Sues DOE for Historical Documents
on Los Alamos Environmental Releases
Ken Silver at 505-820-1143
A doctoral candidate in environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health today filed a lawsuit in federal district court demanding that the Department of Energy provide him with specific historical documents pertaining to releases of radioactive materials from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). At issue in the lawsuit are three requests for specific documents filed by Ken Silver in June and July, 2000 under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“I requested about three dozen documents by their titles, dates and specific locations on the shelves in the LANL Archives and the Occurrence Reports Collection,” said Silver. “But the DOE wrote back that ‘other documents may exist’ and that they were still searching for the information,” he said. “I made it so easy for them. I gave them the precise locations of the records. But they’re playing games,” Silver charged.
“Public health research isn’t supposed to be a game,” he said.
Silver hopes the documents will shed light on three key questions about LANL’s possible impacts on public health (see “Background Document...” for further details):
In 1997 Silver arranged for a set of finding aids to historical documents in the LANL Archives to be placed in the Community Reading Room in Los Alamos. From those finding aids (called “Records Transfer Request forms”) he honed in on specific documents which he needs to answer the above questions and complete his doctorate on historical emissions from LANL. Silver temporarily shelved his use of FOIA as a research tool when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced in 1998 that they would be reviewing every box of LANL historical records for evidence of off-site releases, and placing copies of key records in the public domain. But CDC has been locked out of the main LANL records facilities since June 2000 because of security concerns.
- How much radioactive iodine was emitted from Omega West Reactor in the late 1960’s, in particular in 1967, a year in which 15,000 curies of “mixed fission products” were released into air from Omega site?
- What is the total quantity of plutonium isotopes emitted into air from stacks at the Chemistry and Metallurgical Research (CMR) Building in 1971 to 1973?
- Why do air monitoring records from DP West, the Lab’s old plutonium facility, carry the hand-written notation “These figures should not be recorded on yearly report” alongside very high levels of airborne radioactivity in work areas in July 1969?
“These documents deal with environmental releases. They have nothing to do with the details of weapons design. So DOE and LANL can’t legitimately claim that the documents are ‘classified’ for national security reasons,” Silver asserted.
Silver is represented by Attorney Richard Mietz of Santa Fe. "Mr. Silver requested a few very specific documents. He also pinpointed their exact locations in LANL's records facilities. Given the limited nature of records sought in this request, there’s no excuse for DOE taking seven months to respond, when the FOIA statute requires a determination within 20 working days" Mietz said.
“If tenacity were money, Ken would be millionaire,” said Dr. Richard Clapp, Associate Professor of Environmental Health and Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH). Clapp, who specializes in community-oriented epidemiology, is Silver’s advisor. “Unfortunately, serious public health researchers who focus on DOE facilities take a lot of lumps and face tremendous obstacles in seeking information about past exposures,” he said.
The BUSPH Environmental Health program, home to one of the few groups of scholars and technical experts in environmental health sciences who eschew financial support from private corporations and the operators of polluting facilities, attracts mid-career public interest scientists and advocates. They specialize in assisting communities and labor groups in understanding the activities of polluting facilities. Mr. Silver has 20 years’ experience as a public interest scientist and advocate. He holds a master of science degree from the Harvard School of Public Health.
“I’d much prefer to pursue my research hypotheses like a normal researcher, in a low-key, deliberate manner,” said Silver. “But DOE and LANL are so intransigent when it comes to sharing historical data. They’ve left me no choice but to file this lawsuit in a public way,” he said.