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From Despair to Hope: A Costly Phantom Mercury Contamination Scare in the Scarboro Community

Editors: Two years ago, Al Chambles elucidated the importance of Kizzmekia Corbett's work on the Moderna vaccine for our readers. He returns this year with something you should know about.


“I believe that I can shed some light on why the larger community was silent on the mercury problem in Scarboro. An examination of the location of the stream, the distance to Scarboro and the analysis of soil samples made the existence of a problem seem so terrible ridiculous.”

Alfred A. Brooks, Jr., PhD

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A serious news reporting error related to the Scarboro Community in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, occurred on May 17, 1983, forty years ago, that created a level of fear, misunderstanding, distrust, and other negative consequences that have lasted until this day. That erroneous news combined with an apparent lack of scientific literacy among members of the community, and a serious lack of investigated reporting by members of the media was like a death sentence to our community. Reporting errors relative to environmental contamination issues in the Scarboro Community continued for several years from media such as The Nashville Tennessean, The Oak Ridger, NBC television, etc. Many in the community began to believe that much of what they had considered good in the community had turned bad. They were afraid to breathe what they once thought was crisp clean air; afraid to drink the city water which chemical analysis had shown to be among the best quality and safest water in the state—consistently meeting state water quality standards; afraid to plant and eat vegetable from their fertile gardens; and afraid to invest money and energy in what they once felt was a wonderful place to live and to raise children. The feeling of safety and wellbeing was seriously eroded—so much so that some who lived in the community claimed that they feel sick while in the Scarboro Community but feel much better when outside of it. 

Nevertheless, despite the years of misinformation caused by the unfortunate news reporting errors and the resulting rational and irrational fears and turmoil over the issue, a ray of hope has emerged some forty years later. Let me explain:

On May 17, 1983—forty years ago—television commentators on the six o’clock evening news in the Knoxville, Tennessee, viewing area reported that the Department of Energy (DOE) which oversees the Y-12 Nuclear Weapon facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, had released information earlier that day which estimated that more than two million pounds of toxic mercury were lost to the environment or unaccounted for due to using millions of pounds of mercury in the Colex separation process to produce material for thermonuclear weapons. Unbeknownst to residents, according to the news accounts, much of the highly toxic metal lost during that process had been flowing—for over thirty years—down East Fork Poplar Creek. Then, they added, erroneously, that the creek meanders through the segregated Scarboro Community where African Americans were forced to live during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

I knew the location of the East Fork Poplar Creek, and I knew that it did not flow through my community, and I felt sure that the reporting error would be corrected on the eleven o’clock nightly news. But the error was not corrected, and by news time had escalated by news crews into a full-blown emergency for the Scarboro Community. News crews had spread throughout the community and interviewed many community members asking questions such as, “What do you think about that mercury contaminated creek flowing through your community?” Most of the interviewees showed visible anger and generally stated that he or she didn’t like it and that the government should move that dangerous creek from the community.

Soon, news outlets throughout the nation alleged, erroneously, that my community was contaminated with mercury, when, in fact, the mercury contamination was located elsewhere in the city. However, the media appeared to focus primarily on the Scarboro Community. The June 21, 1983 edition of The Oak Ridger showed a an African-American woman looking through material on mercury at the Oak Ridge Public Library. The caption under the photo stated erroneously that the Mercury Contaminated East Fork Poplar Creek runs through her property. The turmoil over the environmental insult resulted in a joint Congressional field hearing in Oak Ridge on July 11, 1983.

The erroneous news report on the location of the East Fork Poplar Creek caused many contentious meetings to be held on the mercury contamination issue in the Scarboro Community despite the fact the creek did not flow through Scarboro, and analytical results showed that the mercury levels in Scarboro were insignificant and less than that found in most other places in the city.5 Nevertheless, the meetings were well publicized and well reported on.  However, meetings held elsewhere in the city were not publicized or at least not widely publicized. Thus, most people in the area generally believed that the mercury contamination issue was primarily an issue affecting the historically segregated Scarboro Community. Others, who knew the exact location of the mercury-contaminated East Fork Poplar Creek probably wondered why members of the Scarboro Community were concerned at all about the creek since it was not located in the Scarboro Community and no significant levels of mercury were ever found in it. 

Alfred Brooks, Jr., PhD, a longtime resident of Oak Ridge, and a retired scientist who had mercury contamination in his pasture, offered his opinion: 

“I believe that I can shed some light on why the larger community was silent on the mercury problem in Scarboro. An examination of the location of the stream, the distance to Scarboro and the analysis of soil samples made the existence of a problem seem so terrible ridiculous."

“There were other areas of the streams (including my pasture) that took our attention.” 

Nonetheless, several members of the Scarboro Community were so blinded by the erroneous news reports that they couldn’t believe—and sometime couldn’t understand—the analytical data and numerous studies. So, they complained to whoever would listen to their concerns including travelling to Nashville, TN to beg state government officials to have the alleged mercury-contaminated creek (which didn’t really exist in the Scarboro Community) removed from the Scarboro Community. It was difficult for participants in the numerous meetings to understand terms such as 0.05 parts per billion (ppb) of mercury in water samples taken near Spellman Avenue, and 38 parts per million (ppm) of mercury in soil samples taken behind K-Mart. Regrettably, ongoing community projects such as reducing or eliminating crack cocaine in the communities were largely abandoned in pursuit of the phantom mercury issue.

Some people, both near and far, including well-meaning philanthropists who wanted to help protect the poor African-American community from a powerful polluter, also dismissed the analytical data since they had historical information suggesting that environmental polluters in America are more prone to pollute predominately African-American communities than white or majority communities. In addition, a Scarboro Community leader emerged who had very limited knowledge of science, scientific methods, chemical analyses, etc., and was easily influenced by the emotional whims of the scientific illiterate, well-meaning philanthropists, and those seeking financial gains on the issue. He and his follows continued to believe or claimed to believe that the Scarboro Community was contaminated with mercury despite extensive analytical data to the contrary.

For reasons that are mysterious to some of us in the community, several other false and destructive rumors periodically emerged about the Scarboro Community. In the late 1990s, a rumor was circulated that many of the children in the community were significantly sicker with respiration problems than children in comparable populations. And a few years ago, a rumor was circulated claiming that DOE was planning to locate a low-level radiological landfill very close to the community. Both rumors were found to be false. In addition, “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State Health Department have found no evidence of widespread respiration problems in children living in a neighborhood near the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation.”

Communities where residents lack sufficient scientific literacy to handle basic science related issues are especially vulnerable to the spread of misinformation about many things. This applies equally for individuals, communities, and even our nation for a host of issues—climate change, global warming, genetically modified foods, immunization, etc. They are easy picking for any charlatan desiring to advance a cause or the next rumormonger seeking to spread fears. The urgent need for innovative science education and for citizens to understand basic science is ever before us.

The reason for the mysterious and erroneous news report stating that the mercury-contaminated East Fork flows through the Scarboro Community was a complete mystery to some of us who lived in the community. It created a serious level of paranoia that has lasted until this day. Why did the news reporters say, on May 17, 1983, that the creek flows through our community—when it didn’t? Was it malicious? Was it an honest error? Were they just toying with us just to see how the African-American community would react?  

I don’t have a definitive answer and I suppose those commentators who relayed the erroneous information have moved on to other what they said, and never knew of the destructiveness and the dire consequences of endeavors, have forgotten about their erroneous reporting. I have given considerable thought to the issue for several years and with the help of others, I now think that I have a plausible answer.

The City of Oak Ridge has two distinct areas with the same name, “Scarboro.” The dual names evolved as a result of the use of the Scarboro School in Bethel Valley by African-American students (1946 to 1949).  In 1949, African-American students were moved from the Scarboro School in Bethel Valley to another school located on the opposite or north side of Pine Ridge to the Gamble Valley Community.  For reasons that are not clear, the name “Scarboro” was informally associated with that school resulting in the name of the Gamble Valley Community eventually evolving into the Scarboro Community. Unfortunately, that meant that the City of Oak Ridge, then, had two distinct communities within its city limit named “Scarboro”—separated by a medium unnamed ridge, Bear Creek Valley, and Pine Ridge, and separated geographically by three to four miles or two to three miles “as the crow flies.”

Regrettably, with two distinct communities having the same name, “Scarboro,” it is easy for the two locations to be confused. That fact coupled with a serious lack of investigate reporting by the media, and the common belief and high probability that predominately African-American communities are more prone to be polluted than white or majority communities made the error very believable.

It appears that the initial news reports on May 17, 1983 stating that the mercury laden East Fork Poplar Creek flows through the Scarboro Community—causing so much confusion and destruction of the community’s reputation—should have reported that the contaminated creek flows parallel to Scarboro Road which is located downhill from the Y-12 Plant on the south side of Pine Ridge and associated with the original Scarboro Community—founded in the early 1790s. The new Scarboro Community where I live and where the mercury contamination was alleged—but no mercury contamination was ever found by chemical analyses—is located on the north side of Pine Ridge. Though tremendously confusing to visitors and to some Oak Ridge residents, a simple observation of the flow of the East Fork Poplar Creek, starting at the Y-12 Plant and flowing somewhat parallel to Scarboro Road before turning, and then, flowing somewhat parallel to Illinois Avenue could have detected this error.

Despite the destructive news reporting error of the 1980s, a glimmer of renewed hope and optimism for the Scarboro Community emerged within recent years.

Thankfully, yet ironically, about thirty-five years after the phantom mercury scare in the Scarboro Community on May 17, 1983, environmental, safety, crime, and other studies showed the Scarboro Community to be an exceptional place to construct a new preschool. The Oak Ridge City Council agreed to spend about ten million dollars to construct the new preschool in the Scarboro Community.  That decision brought a glimmer of light and hope to the community’s long night of darkness and despair.  I heard, with much joy, the preschool construction activities—the loud engine-roar of huge earthmoving equipment and the sounds of hammers at a short distance from my house. Someone once said that “Hope springs eternal!” And we are very hopeful for our community’s future. The new preschool—opened about three years ago—is beautiful and adds much to the Scarboro Community. 

Photo credit: The Oak Ridger

LIST OF REFERENCES NOT LINKED ABOVE

  1. “Our Reflections on Images of Contamination and Illnesses in the Scarboro Neighborhood,” by L. C. Gipson, L. C. Manley, and Al Chambles, Oak Ridge, TN. The Oak Ridger, published on 12/2/1998, 12/3/1998/ and 12/4/1998.
  2. “Our Reflections on Images of Contamination and Illnesses in the Scarboro Neighborhood,” by L. C. Gipson, L. C. Manley, and Al Chambles, Oak Ridge, TN. Prepared and Delivered to City of Oak Ridge Mayor Walter K. Brown and Members of Oak Ridge Council, Oak Ridge, TN, November 4, 1998.
  3. Photo of African-American Resident of the Scarboro Community looking at Material on Mercury at the Oak Ridge Public Library. The Oak Ridger 6/21/1983.
  4. “DOE says Scarboro Mercury Levels Lower,” The Oak Ridger, 6/23/1983.
  5. “Responds to Scarboro Columns,” by Alfred A. Brooks, Jr.” The Oak Ridger, December 1998.
  6. “Study: No widespread respiratory problems found in Scarboro,” The Oak Ridger, 2/2/1999.


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