The Salmon Test Site: A Lesson in Communication

As we drove along the bumpy dirt road outside the city of Purvis in south-central Mississippi, it was hard to believe that we would be standing on the site where not one, but two, nuclear detonations had occurred. We were driving back in time to 1964, the height of the cold war. The arms race with the Soviet Union was in full force, and the country had recently experienced the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis. To reduce the escalating tension, the US signed the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. The treaty banned nuclear testing in the atmosphere, space, and underwater but not underground because there was no reliable method to detect and measure underground testing. The US government was on alert, and Americans were afraid.

Under these conditions, the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) developed Project Dribble with the goal of learning how to detect or avoid the detection of underground nuclear testing. There were two detonations carried out in the geologically unique Tatum Salt Dome, 2,700 feet below the earth’s surface, and 21 miles from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. On October 22, 1964, the first nuclear blast, one-third the force of Hiroshima, left a cavity 110 feet wide in the solid salt deposits far below the ground. Before the detonations, the government authorities explained the general plans of the project which was code-named Project Salmon to area residents but failed to adequately discuss the potential hazards or address some citizen’s concerns. Some local citizens protested against the planned nuclear testing but were generally ignored and told that the role they played in supporting the project was a great service to the country.

On the day of the blast, schools closed, the government ordered the evacuation of a 2-mile radius around ground zero and compensated residents: $10 per adult, $5 per child. Eye-witnesses said the force of the blast caused the ground to move like waves in the ocean, foundations and chimneys were damaged, wells went dry, and some reported that the force killed cattle lying on the ground during the blast. The second underground nuclear detonation, Project Sterling, was carried out in 1966 in the subterranean crater left by the first blast. This test was a much smaller, and the shock waves were muffled 100-fold because the explosion occurred in the cavity as opposed to solid salt or earth. Residents did not notice the effects of the second blast and no damage was reported. The project was considered a success because valuable knowledge about underground nuclear testing was reaped from studying the blasts.

The magnitude and damage from the first blast were much more severe than residents had been led to believe from government estimates. The local newspaper in Hattiesburg (21 miles from ground zero) reported that its office building swayed for three minutes after the blast. Testing of the area soon after the first detonation showed no radioactive contamination of soil, water, or air. Two months after the testing was completed, researchers drilled a hole into the cavity to lower measurement instruments. Soil and water right around ground zero were contaminated when the drill was brought back to the surface. Attempts were made by the federal government in 1964 and 1966 to clean up the site. In 1972, the buildings at the test site were bull-dozed, and the waste was sent to the Nevada Test Site. The remaining radioactive material (solid rock, dirt, and water) was buried and sealed in the cavity left by the detonation 2,500 feet below the surface. The Department of Energy erected a granite marker and brass plaque warning future generations not to drill or dig at the site.

Not long after the testing, residents began complaining of poor health. There was growing suspicion that the blast had exposed them to harmful radiation speculated to be primarily through water contamination from the site. Decades-long monitoring and testing of the area has never shown evidence of harmful contamination of drinking water.  A seed of mistrust grew over the years, and many residents of Lamar County began to attribute cancer deaths to Project Salmon. In an attempt to allay those fears, the federal government helped residents build a pipeline to assure that drinking water came from a source far from the Project Salmon site. Regular testing protocols were put in place to guarantee the health and safety of the public. Epidemiologic studies were conducted to look for a connection between incidences of cancer in the area and the project. No correlation could be concluded based on scientific data. Despite these efforts to assure residents that there is no evidence of harm to their health from the project, their trust remains eroded.

Regular testing of soil, water, plants, and animals continues today and is conducted by the state of Mississippi which was deeded the land above the site in 2010. The Mississippi State Department of Health’s Division of Radiological Health carefully monitors the ground and surface water around the site for any elevated levels of tritium, the isotope that results from the decay of the nuclear material sealed in the Project Salmon cavity. Trace amounts of tritium occur naturally in the environment. It is harmless to people and animals at low levels. The Division of Radiological Health is an expert team lead by B.J. Smith. We met Director Smith as well as the leading health physicist, Karl Barber, and his team of dedicated scientists at the Project Salmon site. Every three months, they collect surface water around the site and send it to their lab for analysis for tritium. The same testing is conducted every 18 months on samples drawn from 70 different individually drilled wells around the project site. Even the frequency of testing can bring about suspicion in the community. As Mr. Barber explained, ‘If you test more often, people worry. If you test less often, people worry.’ The amount of tritium measured in water samples from the test site, private wells, and municipal water supplies has been far below the maximum level set by the EPA for safe drinking water. To provide transparency about the site, the Division of Radiological Health shares the results of all testing and provides an explanation of those results with the public in an online annual report.

Some residents still believe Project Salmon was harmful to their health despite scientific data and repeated testing that proves otherwise. Communicating with the people is essential.  If the Department of Energy had held community meetings, formed a focus group, or given interviews about the project plans with local journalists before the project started, they would have earned the public’s trust from the beginning. Since 2010, the staff of the Division of Radiological Health has met with members of the community to listen to concerns and provide answers. The team from the Division of Radiological Health has even hosted community fish fries with fish from area lakes to prove they are safe to eat. Nevertheless, local legends of alligators with antlers supposedly resulting from Project Salmon-contaminated water persist. Once trust is eroded in a community, it may take generations to restore it. By listening to residents, we will better understand their needs and be able to work with them to meet those needs. Fully engaging area residents in a project from the planning stage to the evaluation stage is essential to good public health practice.

Team C3– Clair, Courtney, Catherine

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