“Encountering Rural Appalachia”- Jonesborough, TN Delegation 2011

On the morning of October 28th, the day before our “Occupy Aerojet” action, I spent a couple hours in the neighborhoods around Aerojet Ordnance, handing out fliers about the storytelling and soil and water sampling we were to do the following day. The varied reactions serve as a portrait of the differing interests and concerns within the Campaign to End Depleted Uranium Munition Production in rural Tennessee.

My first stop was Davy Crockett High School, about a mile from Aerojet Ordnance on State Route 34. The school was closed for holiday, but I happened to meet the janitors on break. I mentioned the event to them, and that some of the soil and water samples around the plant had come back positive for Depleted Uranium (DU), the toxic and radioactive waste product from extracting highly enriched uranium for fuel. These three workers did not appear at all surprised.

The first man, an African American, said that he had lived next door to Davy Crockett High School as their janitor for the last thirty years and has known numerous people to die of cancer, and was always curious if it was linked to Aerojet. He said he was familiar with the case at Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) in Erwin, about ten miles from Aerojet Ordnance, but appeared tired and somewhat helpless. “That is how it is in rural Appalachia. Companies are taking our soil and adding things to it all the time. What can we do?”

Another one of the janitors reported that she too had heard about the Nuclear Fuel Service case through her friend, Park Overall. Park, an actress and exuberant spirit, met with our Delegation earlier that week. In many ways, she is the link between the Nuclear Fuel Service case and the Erwin community. She has developed a firm grasp on nuclear energy issues, refuses to take no for an answer, and is in many ways a “river keeper”, hearing and retelling the stories of her neighbors who live downstream from Aerojet and NFS.

In her thick Southern accent, she was proud to report that she was a facebook friend of Park, and when I mentioned our soil and water sampling she quickly responded in saying, “Don’t doubt it a bit. I’ll let the folks know.” She agreed to tell her friends and neighbors about our willingness to take soil samples of any community member who asks for one.

 y next stop was the Shell station up the road, the gas station nearest the Aerojet plant. Our delegation wanted to ask if we could run a shuttle to use their restroom facilities the next day during our “Occupy Aerojet” event. At first when I told the woman at the counter about what Christian Peacemaker Teams was doing in the area, she nodded supportively.

However, when I asked if she would hang a flier in the store, she said she could not. The manager standing behind her stated, “We are a chain. We can’t get caught up in the controversy.” I told them I understood and asked them if they would tell others in the area about the free soil and water samples, in case someone was interested. The cashier said she would, but assured me that many of the Aerojet workers are Shell’s customers and that they cannot hang any advertisement for the event. The manger sounded insistent, so I thanked them for their time and walked back outside.

I remember wishing I would have spoken up about CPT’s concern for plant workers, and how our hope is to replace the Depleted Uranium penetrator core’s that they manufacture with a different product, not to take anyone’s job. I sat in the van and wondered about the distance corporations like Shell and Aerojet keep between them and their local community. I considered what I might say the next time to explain that Christian Peacemaker Teams has the worker’s interests in mind.

After stopping at some other restaurants and corner stores, I decided to check with one more “mom and pop” grocery store on the way back to the Parsonage where our delegation had been staying. I walked in and greeted the cashier and the other store regulars standing at the counter, clearly not there to buy anything, but to enjoy company and the talk of the town.

I told them what Christian Peacemaker Teams had been doing during the week and asked if they would hang a flier for the “Occupy Aerojet” event. The cashier nodded enthusiastically. “Of course I will! I am so glad you all are here.” One of the men standing next to her explained how both of his grandparents died of cancer in the 90s. He stated that they owned a farm right next to the plant and had been drinking well water for decades, and that the family wondered if their cancer was related to the plant’s manufacturing of DU.

I informed him that increased cancer rates have been shown among individuals exposed to DU, particularly through ingestion, but that it is difficult to make a direct link. I explained that what we can do is uncover whether the community is at increased risk by testing the soil, air, and water of resident properties near the plant. I invited him to have his grandparent’s soil sampled to see if it is positive for DU and to share his story with others. He assured me that he would, and took down the contact information for a sample. We thanked each other, and I left feeling slightly more elevated than when I left the Shell station earlier.

Rural Appalachia is a deeply connected community by family, neighbor and small business. I am learning that if we can simply get the information in the hands of local residents, they will bring the town. Our Delegation looks forward to hearing the findings from ongoing soil and water samples in the area, and we hope for a widespread assessment to be done either by Aerojet Ordnance, or by Dr. Michael Ketterer.

This morning of meetings reminded me that the work of Christian Peacemaker Teams in regards to Depleted Uranium spreads even beyond the combatants and civilians in the war zones of the world. It is also for the local janitor, store owner and farmer in eastern Tennessee that Christian Peacemaker Teams continue the environmental research necessary to end Depleted Uranium munitions production.

Submitted by Lizz Schallert