InvestigationSeveral posthumous investigations were launched in both public and private spheres. The press picked up on Silkwood's story; The New York Times had a front-row seat because Burnham had literally been at the scene of the accident a few hours after it happened. He and Steve Wodka had been waiting for Silkwood at the nearby Holiday Inn. When she was uncharacteristically later than usual, at 10 p.m., they started making phone calls and learned of the accident. After Burnham's stories appeared in the Times, Rolling Stone picked up on the story and ran a series of articles on the plant and Silkwood.
Kerr-McGee accepted the narrative put forth by the police department, and when questioned, went on the offensive. Company representatives suggested that Karen had been a drunk, drug-addicted floozy who perhaps had even gone so far as to poison herself to get the plant in trouble. To Silkwood's friends, this was a plainly preposterous notion, considering how much of a nervous wreck she had become over the last few month, but it was a version repeatedly put forth in the lawsuit that soon followed her death.
The Kerr-McGee StoryKaren Silkwood was born on the 19th day of February in the year of 1946.
When Karen Silkwood got the job at the Kerr-McGee plant, she become interested in the group called "Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union". It was not too long after being hired that she joined the group. Shortly thereafter, the union members participated in a strike against Kerr-McGee. The strike would soon come to a close and she would be put in the committee that was referred to as "Union Bargaining" and given the responsibility of investigating issues related to the health of the workers as well as the overall safety of those individuals. She researched the facility and discovered:
Poster from the Christic Institute archives.
|Born||Karen Gay Silkwood
February 19, 1946
|Died||November 13, 1974 (aged 28)
near Crescent, Oklahoma
|Spouse(s)||William Meadows (1965–1972), 3 children|
She worked at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site plant near Crescent, Oklahoma, United States. Silkwood's job was making plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. This plant experienced theft of plutonium by workers during this era. She joined the union and became an activist on behalf of issues of health and safety at the plant as a member of the union's negotiating team, the first woman to have that position at Kerr-McGee. In the summer of 1974, she testified to the Atomic Energy Commission about her concerns.
For three days in November, she was found to have abnormal but low levels of plutonium contamination on her person and in her home. That month, while driving to meet with David Burnham, a New York Times journalist, and Steve Wodka, an official of her union's national office, she died in a car accident under unclear circumstances.
Her family sued Kerr-McGee on behalf of her estate. In what was the longest trial up until then in Oklahoma history, the jury found Kerr-McGee liable for the plutonium contamination of Silkwood, and awarded substantial damages. These were reduced on appeal, but the case reached the United States Supreme Court in 1979, which upheld the damages verdict. Before another trial took place, Kerr-McGee settled with the estate out of court for US $1.38 million, while not admitting liability.