In 1987, late in the Cold War, in a government reading room in Richland, Washington, a historian was studying newly released documents about the Hanford nuclear reservation. Then, a strange man approached her.
The tall, thin stranger asked Michele Gerber to coffee.
“And I asked him, you know, who he was and why he wanted to talk to me,” she said.
She thought he was working for the feds.
“And you know he just used some of his training, I suppose, but it was kind of oblique,” Gerber recalled. “And it was ‘Well, you know, we’re just curious.’”
She was onto the biggest story of her life. And he was interrupting.
“And I said, ‘Absolutely not, I’m an American citizen, I have a right to be here and I’m busy,’” Gerber said.
‘That was going to lead you down a trail'
Gerber was unlocking the story slowly, with government documents. Cryptic stuff.
“There would be a lot of mysteries,” she said. “Key words would jump out but you didn’t know what they were. Code words or just strange terminology. And so I would go to the footnotes. And pretty soon I started filing Freedom of Information Act requests to request what was in the footnotes, because that was going to lead you down a trail.”
Gerber was a Ph.D. historian and mother of three young children when she moved to Richland. She started reading articles in the newspaper about Hanford waste releases into the air -- and about people who got sick. Gerber wondered if there was a bigger story.
She said U.S. Department of Energy officials began asking her who she was. And what she was doing.
“At the time, in the mid to late 1980s, the DOE still was a very secret organization. And they had their traditions,” Gerber said. “And they probably felt, ‘Who is this outsider? And why do we need to share information?’”
Detailing the ‘Green Run’
They needed to share it because she had requested it under federal law. And one day, it showed up at her doorstep: Eighteen volumes of typed government documents from WWII. She pulled an all-nighter.
“I could not stop reading,” Gerber said. “I remember finally just lying on the carpet and watching the sun come up and still reading.”
Those volumes, and other documents, proved the government released radioactive waste from Hanford from 1944 through the Cold War. To the air, water and land.
She detailed the infamous Green Run. That’s when the government released radioactive iodine and chemicals into the breeze. It was tracked as far away as Spokane. There were contaminated soldiers, salmon and backyard vegetables. Experimental sheep. Pasco farmers had been sprinkling their fields with sullied Columbia River water.
And most people didn’t know a thing.
Keeping her outsider perspectives
But when she shared this news at public talks in the Tri-Cities, sometimes she’d get heckled and booed -- some people would cry. They were hearing this information for the first time. Their Shangri-La was spoiled.
“Their immediate reaction was, ‘You don’t know, you weren’t here,’” Gerber said. “But the documents don’t lie. And so I began bringing documents with me. Actual documents.”
Gerber’s book “On the Home Front” was first published in 1992 under her name at the time: Michele Stenehjem. It has since sold thousands of copies. Now she’s lived in Richland for nearly 30 years, she’s no longer an outsider.
But Gerber works hard to keep her outsider eyes.
“Hanford is different,” she noted. “It’s not your typical American place. And it’s really important to keep that perspective. Don’t let it become so ordinary that we don’t continue to think critically about it.”
She said with Hanford, you just can’t get too comfortable.
Photography by Kai-Huei Yau, audio and story by Anna King, design by Doug Gast. Family photos courtesy of Michele Gerber.