Karen Silkwood, union activist and whistleblower , she died under some very questionable circumstances on November 13, 1974.

While working at Kerr-McGee’s plutonium plant then located in Crescent, Oklahoma, Karen Silkwood became aware of some very serious health risks associated with working in that environment. To top it off, she was also an avid union supporter (member/organizer of Local 5-283 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union) in a company that was decidedly anti-union.

After discussing her issues with the company management, Silkwood became the target of harassment by company officials and quite possibly by local police and government officials. The phone in her home was discovered to be tapped and the home itself was somehow contaminated by radioactive plutonium. Whether it was planted there or not remains a mystery.

Approximately three months before her death (we’ll get to that in a moment), Silkwood had handed over documents to the Atomic Energy Commission that outlined the safety violations that were uncovered at the plant. She also accused the company of providing the commission with falsified reports that covered up any concerns about safety. She claimed to have in her possession documents that substantiated her position and was about to expose them to both union officials and a reporter for the New York Times.

On the eve of her death she was actually on her way to meet with the union representative and reporter. She never got there. It seems her car was involved in a one-car accident and was discovered off the road. She was killed and no documents were ever found.

Her story continued on in the courts for many years. Her estate filed a lawsuit against the Kerr-McGee Corporation for alleged health and safety issues. The (first) trial ended in 1979 with the jury awarding her estate 10.5 million dollars for personal and punitive damages. Naturally, Kerr McGee appealed the decision and it was subsequently reversed by the Federal Court of Appeals in Denver, Colorado. That court (remarkably, in my ever so humble opinion) saw fit to grant the estate the whopping sum of five thousand dollars for the personal property that Silkwood had “lost” during the cleaning up of her plutonium infected home. Finally, in 1986, twelve years after her death and faced with another retrial, Kerr-McGee decided to settle the suit for 1.3 million.

Oh yeah, that Kerr McGee nuclear plant, it was closed down in 1975 barely a year after Silkwood's death.

A pretty good movie (Silkwood) was made about the circumstances surrounding Karen Silkwood in 1983 that starred Meryl Streep (academy award nomination), Kurt Russell, and Cher. Highly recommended.

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