Have any of you walked along the Highline in Chelsea?
Most people answered, “Yes.” “Sure.” “Of course.”
She asked if anyone knew about the warehouses nearby where the Manhattan Project stored uranium during the 40s.
Everyone was silent.
Beatrice Fihn, executive director of The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, posed this question during the Nation Institute’s “On the Fate of the Earth” lecture series.
Coined “Manhattan Project” to mask its actual purpose, the Manhattan Engineer District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had warehoused processed uranium concentrates in the Baker & Williams storage facilities at 513-519, 521-527 & 529-535 West 20th Street, one of 10 locations in the city used to develop the atomic bomb.
Uranium was no longer categorized as a waste by-product of radium refining, but as an essential component of nuclear fission. In the race to control global supplies, about 18.9 million pounds were purchased, 13.3 of which sourced from the then Belgian Congo’s Shinkolobwe Mine, the world’s largest supplier of high grade radioactive ore.
According to a U.S. Department of Energy report, 702 cartons containing 219,000 pounds of orange and yellow sodium uranate were delivered in 1942 to Baker & Williams. 86,000 pounds of orange and yellow sodium uranate, 22,000 pounds of sodium uranyl carbonate and 20,000 pounds of black uranium oxide arrived the following year.
In “Ex-Nuke Warehouse Holding Warhol Works,” the New York Daily News reported that the Andy Warhol Foundation had acknowledged that a number of his paintings were stored in building 521-527 for 10 years. Some sources have related that these might have been placed beside crates of Tiffany glass and a statue of Vladimir Lenin. Which artworks of Warhol’s? The article doesn’t say, but it does raise the possibility of exposure to contamination. The managing agent for the building confirmed that the work had been there prior to the 1991 government cleanup, but the owner of the art storage company “declined to comment, citing security issues.”
It wasn’t until 1989 that the Department of Energy conducted a radiological survey to determine if these warehouse sites qualified for remediation under FUSRAP (Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program). Surface scans and direct measurements of accessible areas detected residual radioactive contamination and removable alpha and beta-gamma activity. “Pancake” detectors scanned ledges, overhead piping, support columns and walls, and “scintillation” counters measured ionizing radiation.
The DOE reassured tenants that they needn’t be alarmed. Doorways and entrances were blocked with plastic to prevent any radioactive dust from escaping. Walls were taken down that had been used as dividers. Blasting machines and chipping hammers broke up concrete floors and asphalt coverings. High-efficiency vacuum cleaners picked up loose dirt & debris. A chemical agent was applied to contaminated surfaces and left on for 4 hours. Rinse water had to be evaporated in vertical heaters. Workers wore full-face air purifying respirators. Radioactive waste filled 12 drums from basement walls, floor, storage & vault areas as well as from the ground level floor & truck bay in 521-527. 38 drums were later collected from the 513-519 first & third floors, basement and elevator pit. Reports said that most of the radioactive residues were removed and whatever remained would meet acceptable levels.
During the Manhattan Project, officials felt that health risks facing workers were secondary to the rush for atomic weaponry and that medical research should instead “strengthen government interests.” Both scientists and doctors knew that plutonium toxicity was biomedically similar to that of radium, which, once it enters the human body, settles there permanently. Aware of the Radium Girls court cases that had brought worldwide attention to the severe hazards of working with radioactive materials, basic safety precautions were put in place at all nuclear facilities, and the effects of long term plutonium exposure were dealt with through classified experiments on animals & people. Secrecy was crucial. If any health complications were to leak out, the entire operation could be jeopardized.
Determined to speak out concerning the dire illnesses caused by radium poisoning, the five women from Orange, New Jersey known as the Radium Girls filed a lawsuit in 1927 against the U.S. Radium Corporation for the right of workers to sue employers under the state’s occupational injuries law, which unfortunately only had a two year statute of limitations. A settlement was reached out of court. Women continued the fight for legal justice in their uphill struggle, no matter how difficult it was to find lawyers willing to take on high profile corporate interests that continually denied & covered up factual evidence. Actions were taken to sue Radium Dial in Ottawa, Illinois, a company that no insurance firm was willing to cover. They closed down and reopened under another name. After a long, drawn out trial, the enterprise was found guilty in 1938. Worker safety standards for dial painters were established just in time for the next boom in wartime contracts.
Women had begun applying for the prestigious job of painting watch & alarm clock dials in 1916. Each prepared her own mixture with this brand new luminous formula, adding water and a gum arabic adhesive to a dab of radium powder with the key ingredient zinc sulfide, which reacted to the radium by giving off a never ending, phosphorescent luster. Paid by the piece, speed & accuracy were essential. Instructions were given to keep their camel-hair brushes sharp & clean by rolling them in their mouths. Supervisors promised that the flavorless paste, if swallowed, was most certainly harmless. Everything worn or touched by the dial painters inevitably sparkled. These women had no idea that they were slowly killing themselves.
Radium merchandize strategically hit the market after the First World War as the latest fad to cure any ailment from fatigue to impotence. One could buy assorted beauty products, pep pills, chocolate bars, readymade glow-in-the-dark paint, radium lined jock straps and lingerie. Many of the best selling energy drinks didn’t even contain this very expensive miracle wonder. “Radithor” did, and 5 to 7 glasses daily were recommended. Crocks lined with radioactive ore were being sold for making home brew.
I walked along 20th street on my way to the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again looking to see if I could spot any glistening particles embedded in the sidewalk. A few current occupants were convinced that radioactive dust was most likely still floating around. I couldn’t find Warhol’s 1965 silkscreen of repeating mushroom clouds, “Atomic Bomb” on view. I’m still thinking about going back with a geiger counter. Anybody have one? We have until the end of March 2019.