With the fingers of her right hand, Deborah Clark presses firmly on a gaping surgical hole in her neck. It’s the only way she can speak.
The words that emerge are painful. Clark, 60, has late-stage thyroid cancer, which has stilled her voice, stolen her energy and spread clusters of tumors to her lungs. The former hospital reimbursement specialist hasn’t been able to work since 2004.
She’s had serial surgeries since 1997, but what hurt the most: When her youngest granddaughter was born 20 months ago, Clark couldn’t hold her and talk baby talk to her at the same time.
“I have a husband, kids and grandkids to live for. But my doctor in Portland has said I could die at any time from complications of this disease,” Clark said in a recent interview.
A Longview, Wash., resident with two sons in Spokane, Clark was born in Pendleton, Ore., on Dec. 15, 1949, two weeks after a secret military experiment called the “Green Run” dispersed radioactive iodine-131 from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation throughout portions of eastern Oregon and Washington, including Spokane.
The iodine, discharged from a reactor making plutonium for atomic bombs, raised thyroid cancer risks for 16,000 infants and small children who drank milk from cows eating contaminated grass, a $27 million government study conducted a half-century later would conclude.
The public wasn’t told about the Green Run and other dangerous Hanford emissions until 1986, when the U.S. Department of Energy released documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Spokesman-Review and two environmental groups.
The revelations triggered several lawsuits against the private contractors who operated Hanford. The about 1,900 plaintiffs are collectively called the “Hanford downwinders.”
Clark is one of them.
Because of her advanced illness, Clark’s lawyer, Richard Eymann of Spokane, is asking for an expedited jury trial within the next five months to resolve her case before she dies. They’ve also asked the government for $2 million to settle her case.
“It is Mrs. Clark’s desire that she ‘have her day in court’ prior to her premature death,” Eymann said in a motion filed last month.
Kevin Van Wart, lead attorney for the defense, opposes Eymann’s motion, calling it a “stunt” that would move Clark’s case to the head of the line while other sick plaintiffs wait for resolution of their claims.
“Lots of people who filed their cases back in 1990 are entitled to the same access. This is not good case management,” Van Wart said.
Plaintiffs’ counsel declined to comment due to the upcoming hearing.
Clark’s oncologist, Dr. Ann W. Gramza of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, said in a medical report last December that Clark at any time “could either stop responding, develop tracheal obstruction, or esophageal obstruction. One of these situations will inevitably arise and will certainly hasten her death.”
But defense lawyers say there’s no medical evidence she has only months to live.
“Mrs. Clark is undoubtedly ill, but there is no basis in the record to predict that she will die before any of the other hundreds of other elderly or ill plaintiffs in this case,” they said in a Feb. 10 reply to Eymann’s motion.
More than 800 plaintiffs in the case are over 70, according to the defense response.
At the time of her birth, Clark’s family lived in Umatilla, Ore., where her father worked for a construction company and her mother was a homemaker.
Her parents bought milk from a farm near Irrigon, Ore., she recalled.
“I was bottle-fed with raw milk. They thought it was healthier,” she said.
A major Hanford “dose reconstruction” study conducted after the Hanford contamination was revealed said children drinking milk from backyard cows were at the most risk of radiation disease.
Clark’s sister Rebecca was born in 1951. She also developed thyroid cancer and died in 2000 at age 48 after contracting melanoma.
Clark describes her mother as a “news junkie” who followed developments at Hanford in the media and urged Rebecca to join the downwinders’ civil action.
“She encouraged my sister to file. I didn’t get involved because I never thought I’d get cancer. I’d always been healthy,” Clark said.
But when Clark discovered in 1997 that thyroid cancer had wrapped around her right vocal cord, her mother urged her to sue. Although Clark hadn’t kept up with the news of the lawsuit, she agreed to participate. She was devastated that she could no longer sing in her church choir.
“There were a lot of tears shed over this … I know in my gut it (Hanford) is the cause,” she said.
Case in its second decade
The federal government has spent tens of millions of dollars in the downwinders’ case defending the Hanford companies, which they agreed to indemnify for running the nuclear facility. The federal government also will pay if the plaintiffs win.
The case is now in its second decade, making it one of the longest-running civil suits on the Spokane court’s docket.
The legal question boils down to whether Clark and the other plaintiffs can prove that Hanford made them sick.
In 2002, the government’s Hanford Thyroid Disease Study concluded there was no evidence of higher thyroid disease rates among 3,441 people born near Hanford.
But the epidemiological study – criticized by some scientists for its weak statistical power – also cautioned it couldn’t rule out that an individual might have gotten thyroid disease from Hanford radiation.
Only six “bellwether” plaintiffs chosen to represent a variety of thyroid illnesses have had trials so far, with mixed results.
About 400 of the original 2,300 plaintiffs have dropped off due to death, dismissal or other factors.
U.S. District Court Judge William F. Nielsen has said he wants parallel trials and mediation to move forward quickly to resolve large numbers of the remaining claims within 12 to 15 months.
The defense attorneys have agreed to include Clark among 50 thyroid cancer plaintiffs being selected this year for mediation. They are considered the strongest cases for settlement because of the favorable jury verdicts in thyroid cancer bellwether cases.
‘They’ve already killed me’
In the early 1950s, when Clark was a toddler, documents show that Hanford continued to eject radiation into the air and into the Columbia River.
By 1951, approximately 730,000 curies of iodine-131 had been released into the atmosphere. By comparison, the 1986 Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union released an estimated 50 million curies over 10 days.
Hanford officials worried in the mid-1940s that radioactive iodine would harm people’s thyroids, so they installed filters and mandated a longer cooling time for uranium fuel to cut back on the iodine.
But the 1949 Green Run after Clark’s birth was an exception. The U.S. Air Force ordered a Hanford plant to run unfiltered in an effort to simulate what officials thought the Soviets were doing – using uncooled uranium fuel in their rush to develop atomic weapons.
Despite Clark’s proximity to Hanford, defense lawyers contend she likely didn’t get enough radiation exposure to prove a link between Hanford and her illness. They say she got less than 1 rad of radiation, while plaintiffs’ experts say her exposure was 17 to 18 rads.
The defense has settlement offers on the table of $150,000 for thyroid cancer victims with estimated doses over 10 rads, according to Van Wart.
Eymann, Clark’s attorney, says only a very few thyroid cancer victims have been offered that amount.
Defense experts are “just guessing” how much radiation she absorbed from the Cold War emissions, Clark asserts.
“It made me angry that they thought I didn’t get enough rads. It’s just a ploy. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve already killed me. This (case) has gone on for over 19 years and it’s time for it to stop.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.