Remembering Karen Silkwood
November 13 marks the 40th anniversary of the suspicious death of Longview native and nuclear safety whistleblower Karen Silkwood.
Portrayed by Meryl Streep in a 1983 award-winning motion picture, Silkwood gained national attention after voicing concerns of health and safety issues at the Kerr-McGee nuclear facility in Crescent, Oklahoma. Supposedly unrelated to the Silkwood scandal, the plant shut down two years after her death.
This year in April, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation that now owns Kerr-McGee agreed on a settlement of $5.15 billion, the largest pollution cleanup settlement in history, to clean up their toxic waste pollution at sites all over the country. Two percent of that settlement is to go to the Crescent plant, where soil and groundwater are polluted with uranium.
Silkwood was the first to draw national attention on the health violations by Kerr-McGee. She became the first Kerr-McGee female employee to hold a position on the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers’ Union’s negotiating team.
While her fight for labor rights had a positive impact on society, her family life suffered a different outcome.
After discovering her husband William Meadows was having an affair with a close friend in 1972, Silkwood made her exit to Oklahoma City, leaving three young children behind. Kristi, Michael, and Dawn were ages 5, 3, and 18 months at the time.
Dawn Lipsey, who is now 44 years old and has three children of her own, says that it is difficult to separate her mother’s achievements from the impact that she had on her as a daughter.
“I get what she did, I really do, but as a daughter and as a mother I can’t get past it,” Lipsey said. “She certainly deserves to be in the history books, absolutely. It is just hard to understand how you walk away from your children.”
Silkwood’s son Michael Meadows, who is now 45 and a father himself, also notes that a child cannot get past the negatives of growing up without a mother.
“Who can put an estimate on the number of negatives that occur over the lifetime of a child forced to grow up and then grow old, without the comfort of a mother’s love, embrace, advice,” Meadows said.
Meadows who resides in Missouri, along with Lipsey and their sister Kristi who both live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, acknowledge that the publicity that spurred from their mother’s death was not a welcomed or pleasant experience.
“For the most part, any fame or notoriety that could have been achieved by associating ourselves with our mother’s name, we have avoided like the plague,” Meadows said. “In fact, in 40 years we have only allowed the media access into our lives (the siblings) once, and that was at the 25th anniversary of mom’s death by People magazine and Biography on the History Channel.”
Noting that he has little to no memory of his mother, Meadows says there is one thing that he thinks would be of surprise to people that follow her story.
“Mom wasn’t an activist of any kind. She wasn’t anti-nuke or anything like that. In fact, she loved all things science related,” Meadows said. “I believe she did what she did not because she was anti-nuclear energy, but because she knew the way things were being handled and the danger her coworkers were being exposed to, among other things, was wrong. Plain and simple.”
Silkwood ultimately testified to the Atomic Energy Commission on those safety hazards. Her voice was heard and sparked the interest of many, including David Burnham of the New York Times.
In agreement to reveal her findings on the safety of her workplace to Burnham, Silkwood left a union meeting at the Hub Café in Crescent to meet the reporter and union official Steve Wodka in Oklahoma City.
Silkwood never joined the two. Her body was found in her 1974 Honda Civic, which struck a culvert. Officials deemed the situation as a one-car accident as a result of falling asleep at the wheel and many disagree with that determination.
Reports indicate that there was a dent in the rear bumper of Silkwood’s vehicle that showed metal and rubber fragments, indicating that another car rammed into it. Silkwood’s documents she was taking to Burnham were missing from the vehicle, which stirs strong speculation.
“Having only the information that I have read over the years to draw from, I personally believe that mom’s death was a murder,” Meadows said. “It is my opinion that whoever forced her off the road was trying to scare her, or even trying to convince her to surrender the documents she was carrying, and then the worst possible outcome that could have occurred, just happened.”
While officials consider this case closed, there are still efforts to find the truth in Silkwood’s untimely death.
Author of “The Killing of Karen Silkwood,” Richard Rashke, and Meadows are tracking down any information that still exists.
“He (Rashke) has recently re-released his book as an e-book online as well as filing for a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI to release any and all information or files relating to the case on behalf of me and my sisters,” Meadows said. “Richard, like myself, has just too many unanswered questions and would love to know why after 40 years the Bureau still feels like the information needs to be kept a secret.”
After Silkwood’s death, her father asked Kerr-McGee for $5,000 as a result of her radiation contaminated household goods. With a counter offer of $1,500, her father sued. The ultimate result was $1.6 million for the children, minus $1 million in legal fees.
Lipsey and her sister used their part of the money to pay for college, Lipsey states that some of the money even went into her children’s college funds.
People Magazine quotes Meadows on the $160,000 he received, stating the he “felt it was dirty money, and I spent it as fast as I could.”
Silkwood rests in the Danville Cemetery in Kilgore, with members of both her mother and father’s side of the family.
Lipsey, who says she is told that she looks and acts just like her mother, says that now that she is older she is looking at the positives. She says that she absolutely loves her life and wouldn’t change a thing. In a recent post on the Karen Silkwood Facebook page, Lipsey posted a note that expresses her shift in perspective on the situation:
“All my life I have been angry at my mother. I never felt, no matter what or who told me, that she loved me. As I get older, I have let go of those feelings. As a mother myself, I now know that you do whatever it takes to make sure your children are safe and secure. I believe that if she could have kept us she would have. I want to apologize to my mother. I want to apologize to my mother’s family. And most of all to my dear sister and brother. They have always been by my side. Even when they did not feel the same way as I did. The three of us have looked out for one another from day one. I love you both always.”