SHOW: 60 Minutes
DATE: January 23, 2000
SOUTHERN EXPOSURE (about depleted uranium)
MIKE WALLACE, co-host:
Today in Columbia, South Carolina, the Confederate flag still flies over the state Capitol, and people by the thousands are protesting. But away from the media spotlight, in another South Carolina town, protesters are fighting what they say is yet another vestige of the Old South, only this time their target is more than just a symbol, it is the single largest private employer in the state, the Savannah River Site. Located just outside Aiken, South Carolina, Savannah River has played a vital role in making this nation's nuclear weapons, its nuclear fuel, and also in storing its radioactive waste. But some black workers at the plant are now charging in a class-action lawsuit that they've had to endure not only the worst kind of racial slurs and job discrimination, but also a management that has assigned them to jobs with more radiation than white workers.
(Aerial footage of Savannah River Site; footage of sign: Caution, Contamination Area; workers; radioactive materials; sign: Savannah River Site; Ivan Smith and workers; Smith and Wallace)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) The Savannah River Site holds some of the most dangerously radioactive substances on Earth. Nuclear weapons are no longer made here, but the workers still do process and store radioactive waste and materials. The plant is owned by the US Energy Department, but is run by the private Westinghouse Savannah River Company. That firm was owned by the old Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which bought CBS in 1995 and sold Savannah River last year. Some black workers at Savannah River are so upset with what they charge is racial discrimination that they've hired New York City attorney Ivan Smith to help represent them in the class-action lawsuit they filed in October of 1997. And Smith himself quickly learned how passionate some people around Aiken are about Savannah River.
Mr. IVAN SMITH: I received a couple of death threats at my house, saying...
WALLACE: You mean in New York?
Mr. SMITH: In New York. I received two telephone calls saying, `If you come back here, nigger, we'll kill you.'
(Footage of Smith and Wallace)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) But Smith went to Aiken just the same. And in June of 1999, the threat was almost carried out when he stopped for lunch on the outskirts of town.
Mr. SMITH: I start turning here, and I don't know what made me look up. And I see a car coming. And then I notice that he's coming right at me. And so I jumped and I hit his hood. And I heard him say, `Nigger get out.'
(Footage of Smith)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) Smith wound up with a broken nose and 11 stitches.
Mr. SMITH: I think if I didn't see him, I'd be dead.
(Footage of workers; Joseph Buggy and Wallace)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) Savannah River now employs about 14,000 workers, 20 percent of whom are black. Joseph Buggy is president of Savannah River.
I understand you have a zero tolerance policy here at the plant when it comes to racial intolerance, be it discrimination, racial slurs. Correct?
Mr. JOSEPH BUGGY: That's correct, Mike. Zero tolerance. We don't stand for that type of behavior at all at our site.
WALLACE: Let me give you a sample of what some black workers have said under oath. White managers have addressed black employees as `boy' in a racially offensive manner. One section of the plant was called the `coon area.' Mr. Buggy, I'm sure you know about this.
Mr. BUGGY: I've heard of that. That's unacceptable behavior on this site.
(Footage of Buggy and Wallace)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) Even with the zero tolerance policy, one white worker thought nothing of using the N-word in Joe Buggy's presence.
What'd you do?
Mr. BUGGY: I--I dressed down; `chewed out' might be a better word. I made it perfectly clear to those individuals that that's unacceptable behavior on my site.
WALLACE: But he wasn't suspended? There was no penalty beyond the dressing down?
Mr. BUGGY: That was a conversational--that I heard in passing. It wasn't a confrontational thing.
Mr. SMITH: When there is a company that will allow employees to openly use that word, and you do not take serious action against that, then you're saying to the rest of the employees, you can call me a nigger one time and get away with it. I don't think that's acceptable.
(Footage of workers)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) These workers, all of them plaintiffs in the lawsuit, say they are not impressed with the plant's zero tolerance policy.
Unidentified Man: Well, I walked in the bathroom and they had my name on this--on a piece of cardboard tacked to the wall, said, `Nigger, watch your back. We're going to kill you. Beware.' And it had a sign, KKK. Well, I reported it to my general foreman. And they told me that there's probably--since it was written in the bathroom, that it didn't mean nothing, that it was probably just a joke.
Mr. MOSES MYERS: Just--28 years ago, they--they just called you `boy.' But today, they'll call you the N-word.
(Footage of Phyllis Calhoun Hurley)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) Until Phyllis Calhoun Hurley quit her job and joined the class-action lawsuit, she ran the Westinghouse Diversity Program at Savannah River.
In your opinion, was the Westinghouse Corporation interested in helping minorities advance?
Mr. PHYLLIS CALHOUN HURLEY: No.
(Footage of Hurley and Wallace)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) In fact, Hurley says her boss once told her that a white worker would be better suited for a new management job because he was white.
Ms. HURLEY: What they said to me was, `This is an opportunity to have a white male in the job,' and...
WALLACE: Because he's going to be able to pacify the white workers?
Ms. HURLEY: Right. That's exactly right.
WALLACE: Black employees at your plant say they have been discriminated against in salary, in promotions, in job security, in job assignments.
Mr. BUGGY: Mike, I can assure you there is absolutely no discrimination, nor has there been since we've been here, against any group or class of our employees.
(Footage of Labor Department documents; building with sign: United States Department of Labor)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) But the US Labor Department apparently disagrees. When several black workers complained about being demoted unfairly, federal authorities investigated, and in 1997, they ordered Westinghouse to compensate financially seven of those black workers. The Labor Department said later they could find no further race discrimination, but their investigation was limited, and they did not look at most of the years covered by the lawsuit.
Mr. BUGGY: Since we've been here, we've increased minority participation in our professional and management ranks by 25 percent.
(Footage of Buggy and Wallace)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) If so, black workers want to know, why are they not better represented at the top levels of management?
How many vice presidents do you have?
Mr. BUGGY: Vice presidents? Sixteen or seven--17.
WALLACE: H--how many vice presidents are black?
Mr. BUGGY: One.
(Footage of Buggy and Wallace; Fred Cavanaugh)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) Actually, as Mr. Buggy later acknowledged, the correct answer is none. Aiken's mayor, Fred Cavanaugh, who used to work at Savannah River himself, says he doesn't know what all the fuss is about.
Mayor FRED CAVANAUGH (Aiken, South Carolina): And I want to--I want to make this point. I never saw the types of things that you just described, the--the racial slurs, the--you know, taking advantage of the African-American vs. the white or--or Hispanic or anyone else.
(Footage of Cavanaugh; people marching)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) Mayor Cavanaugh says he knows very little about the lawsuit, even though last year more than 1,000 people marched past his office and through the streets of Aiken in support of the black workers.
If I may...
Mayor CAVANAUGH: Certainly. Go ahead.
WALLACE: ...how can the mayor of the city know so little about a lawsuit that involves so many of his constituents?
Mr. CAVANAUGH: Let--let--let me just say this...
WALLACE: How many black citizens are there?
Mayor CAVANAUGH: Oh, we've probably got 30 percent of our population. And you know how many that have called me on this issue? One.
WALLACE: Who's that?
Mayor CAVANAUGH: Mr. Hightower.
WALLACE: Willar Hightower?
Mayor CAVANAUGH: Mr. Hightower.
Mr. WILLAR HIGHTOWER: I love Aiken. It's where I grew up. Went to school here, and I--I know the people real well. Aiken's been good to me.
(Footage of Willar Hightower)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) Willar Hightower is the only black member of the Aiken County Council. He too works at Savannah River, and he's a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
What's been the reaction of your fellows who sit on the council with you?
Mr. HIGHTOWER: Quiet. Absolutely nothing.
WALLACE: I have heard that even some parts of the black community here are reluctant to support your class-action lawsuit.
Mr. HIGHTOWER: That's correct. Some are just flat-out scared.
(Footage of Hightower)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) When Willar Hightower tried to advertise a march on behalf of the black workers in a local NAACP magazine, it was turned down because Hightower refused to remove accusations against Westinghouse.
Mr. HIGHTOWER: The local organization is so concerned about inflaming the power structure.
WALLACE: Don't rock the white boat.
Mr. HIGHTOWER: That's exactly right. And the--Westinghouse has given the state chapter money, so they don't want to clip the string on that money.
(Footage of workers; Jimmy Walker and Wallace)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) The NAACP denies this. But the lawsuit's most serious charges involve accusations that plant management put blacks in jobs that exposed them to more radiation than white workers. Jimmy Walker was working around plutonium one day when a warning alarm sounded.
In other words, you'd gotten some...
Mr. JIMMY WALKER: Plutonium.
WALLACE: In your lungs?
Mr. WALKER: Yes.
WALLACE: In your nose?
Mr. WALKER: Yes.
WALLACE: In your mouth?
Mr. WALKER: Yes.
Mr. WALKER: Yes, scared to death, not knowing how to deal with this, or what to think, because I was new in this process. And I was never told that much about plutonium.
(Footage of Walker outside)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) Walker says he was told he had nothing to worry about. And it wasn't until 10 years later in 1988, just before Westinghouse took over Savannah River from the DuPont Corporation, that Walker was told that he had received so much plutonium that he needed to receive special monitoring. In fact, it turned out to be one of the highest exposures in the plant's history.
Ten years later...
Mr. WALKER: Ten years later.
WALLACE: ...they called you in...
Mr. WALKER: Yes.
WALLACE: ...and told you you had received a lifetime dose of radiation, so you shouldn't take it anymore?
Mr. WALKER: Right.
WALLACE: In other words--and they put you in a safe job then?
Mr. WALKER: No. No.
WALLACE: What do you mean, no?
Mr. WALKER: I was placed right back into area to produce more plutonium.
(Footage of awards received by Walker; Walker taking pills)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) Jimmy Walker, who had received numerous awards from the company, says that for years he tried unsuccessfully to get a permanent job away from all radiation. But the management would agree to only temporary transfers, though they did try to limit his overall exposure. Walker finally retired at the age of 42 for medical reasons, having received nearly twice his lifetime dose of radiation.
Do I understand that you now--when you urinate, you urinate plutonium?
Mr. WALKER: Yes. Plutonium will be in my body even after death.
WALLACE: Jimmy Walker, J.J. Walker--you know who he is?
Mr. BUGGY: Mike--and I would like to discuss Mr. Walker. But as a result of rules of the court, and--and for reasons of personal privacy, I just can't discuss any individual person's circumstances associated with this case.
(Footage of bottles of pills, including Lipitor; Buggy and Wallace)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) But in court papers, Westinghouse said Walker cannot prove that any of his ailments, including headaches, high blood pressure and heart problems, were caused by radiation. Mr. Buggy points out that white workers have had their share of accidental exposures as well. And besides, he adds...
Mr. BUGGY: We don't keep people in jobs that they don't want to stay in. We just don't do that. We closely monitor all...
WALLACE: Well, in the case of Walker, apparently you did, unless he's lying.
Mr. BUGGY: I can't comment on Mr. Walker's...
(Footage of documents; Walker and Wallace; document with excerpt highlighted: "...you did a superb job for us. What I do regret is that we work under this inflexible system that doesn't always let us do the right thing.")
WALLACE: (Voiceover) Fact is, James Walker produced for us several internal Westinghouse memos documenting his efforts to get a job away from radiation. Once, after Walker was moved temporarily to a safe job, he was ordered back, which disappointed even a Westinghouse manager, who told Mr. Walker, quote, "You did a superb job for us. What I do regret is that we work under this inflexible system that doesn't always let us do the right thing."
Was race a factor? Walker believes it was. Among the reasons he cites: On the day he received his plutonium exposure, a white man working next to him had also been exposed. And yet that white worker, according to Walker, was eventually promoted and moved to a safer job. Westinghouse denies the man was moved to a safer job.
(Footage of Savannah River Laboratory building; study by A. James Ruttenber; table from study with excerpt highlighted: "...put blacks in jobs that have higher radiation exposures than whites.")
WALLACE: (Voiceover) To try to prove a link between race and radiation exposures, black workers commissioned this study of job assignments at the plant, done by Dr. James Ruttenber, a former epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control. And he found that from 1991 to 1998, job placement practices at the plant `put blacks in jobs that have higher radiation exposures than whites.'
Mr. BUGGY: That gentleman is a--a s--an--a so-called expert on the plaintiffs' side. Experts disagree over numbers all the time.
(Footage of building with sign: Department of Energy)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) That may be so, but Dr. Ruttenber is apparently so well-thought-of by the US Department of Energy, which owns Savannah River, that they are currently paying him to perform another study at another nuclear facility.
Dr. Ruttenber examined five different building areas, and as each building grew increasingly more dangerous with more radiation, the percentage of black workers went up, he says, while the percentage of white workers went down.
Mr. BUGGY: Yes, I--I understand. I don't---I--I disagree with those--those conclusions.
(Footage of document)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) In court papers, Westinghouse cites their own expert, saying blacks did not get more radiation than whites. And they say that Dr. Ruttenber's methodology was flawed.
Mr. BUGGY: These are highly sought-after positions. People apply for these jobs, and they're all voluntary positions.
(Footage of workers; Moses Myers)
WALLACE: (Voiceover) But the black workers say that is not exactly so. They do apply for production jobs, some of which are in radiation areas, and some of which are not. But they say it is the management that puts them mostly in the radiation jobs, which offer no extra pay for hazardous work. Production worker Moses Myers insists the time has come for change.
Mr. MYERS: We want something done about it. It may not ever help me, but we sure have childrens. And we would never want our childrens to go through the same acts that we have to go through there daily, now. We're not going to bend over. We're not going to run. We're going to stand.