Three Decades After Accident, Resident Remains in Pursuit of Truth

 

 

By Marlene Lang 

 

Mary Osborn Ouassiai still calls it home. Her house behind the WITF television station building in Swatara Township, Dauphin County, Pa., overlooks a valley that slopes down several miles toward the Susquehanna River. 

She can see the cooling  towers on Three Mile Island from her driveway; the same driveway she walked across on March 28, 1979 to put her 9-year-old daughter on the school bus. She looks out the same windows she looked out of that day, and the days following, holding her son, 2, and wondering if her family and neighbors were being told the truth about the danger to which they had been exposed. 

 

 

 

Thirty years after the infamous accident at the nuclear power plant, Mary, now in her sixties, remains a woman obsessed. She has decided, no, they were not being told the truth. And, yes, she thinks maybe they were lied to; she has spent three decades trying to find out for herself what happened that morning. 

Her husband Ray, very early, summoned her outside. "'Come outside and smell the air,'" he'd called to her. 

"The air was funny," Mary said. "We could smell and taste metal. Things seemed very still and we realized there were no birds." 

The family got the first tip that an accident might be in progress at 10:30 that morning, many hours before it was announced. The news came from an acquaintance who belonged to a watchdog group formed two years earlier, TMI Alert. 

By that afternoon, rumors were still circulating among TMI's neighbors that something had happened at the plant, but nothing had been confirmed. A few local newspapers reported "a leak" that was "under control," Mary recalled. She and others who lived only miles from the plant had to wait for Walter Cronkite to tell them, on the 6 o'clock news, that whatever happened on the island was serious.  

The next day, Thursday, one of Mary's neighbors called with disturbing information. She worked at a local hotel and said that reporters from all over the world were booking rooms. "They had heard more than us," said Mary. "They knew the accident was way worse than we were being told." 

Indeed.

Even before the core meltdown at TMI's Unit 2 nuclear reactor and the subsequent release of radioactive contaminants, Mary was a skeptic about the nuclear power. She'd attended, not long before the accident, one TMI's community information gatherings at the company building across Route 441 from the main plant; she came out for what she called "a little lecture about how safe everything was." 

"I can't remember what triggered me to think this wasn't good," she mused at her home one January day in 2009, warming her hands at a wood stove in her living room. 

She recalls, as her house was being remodeled back in '79, gazing at the TMI plant from plastic-covered windows, on the Sunday before the accident, and thinking,  "One of these days there is going to be a nuclear accident and I hope to hell it's not here." 

Maybe her state of alarm would have been less intense, and shorter-lived, if she were not a green thumb. Mary grows flowers. Always has. In 1979, she had planted 200 tulips in her yard, along with other plants. 

She and her family evacuated their home at news of the accident, but she recalls that when she returned a few days later – just long enough to gather needed medications and warm clothes – she noticed the cyprus she'd planted seemed to have grown much too fast for the short time they'd been away. 

Much of her obsession with the truth about the accident has centered on irregularities in plants and animals that she – and some scientists, she said – attribute to the radioactivity released that morning in March 1979. 

"It's not so much that I think they lied to us about how much radiation was released," she explained. "It's about the levels of radiation necessary to produce these effects." She said she has learned that some experts think certain effects – genetic mutations in animals, plant malformities and cancers – can manifest at much lower exposure doses than either government or nuclear industry officials have admitted. 

What was nervous suspicion before the accident became flat out distrust after it. One could call it an informed and understandable distrust, in light of the way the news was handled. For residents like Mary, the news delay created a feeling of being kept in the dark, relying on rumors, not being able to make informed decisions about their families – all of that, along with the weird flora. 

That distrust has been deep enough to sustain a three-decade-and-counting quest. Mary has spoken with geneticists and engineers, journalist and politicians. Osborn remains an activist who estimates she has been interviewed by media about the accident and its effects possibly 100 times. She can be seen at almost any public meeting or forum related to the nuclear power issue, and she often gives comments. 

"It's not like the accident happened and it was over," she said, pointing out that it was 10 years before the site decontamination even began. "We learned an awful lot," she added. 

Osborn is of the generation who endured bomb drills in school, who could never escape their awareness of: The Bomb. Anything "nuke" was suspect to her, she said, starting with Einsenhower advocating "Atoms for Peace" in 1953. Osborn was just a school girl when Ike advocated "stripping (atomic power) of its military casing and adapting it to the arts of peace." 

Those "arts" included nuclear power plants like the one six miles downhill from Mary's house.  

She chronicled her experience of the TMI accident in the months and years that followed, typing, photocopying and distributing the account to others who might tell part of her story. She has collected photographs of what she is convinced are mutations caused by radiation released from Three Mile Island, with detailed records of plant growth. Her favorite specimen is a three-foot-long dandelion leaf, found shortly post-accident. 

She hopes to tell it all for herself, she said, presenting in a book her collected evidence that the truth about March 28, 1979 has not yet been fully told. 

"All I want is for them to admit what they did," she said recently. 

 

To view Mary Osborn Ouassiai's gallery of plant and animal photos, use this link: 

www.tmia.com/old-website/photos/index.html

 

Marlene Lang is a freelance writer and columnist. Her column may be read at www.southtownstar.com.