Interview with Bob Petty
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Robert Bauman: Okay. All right. My name's Robert Bauman. And I'm conducting an oral history interview with Mr. Bob Petty. Today is July 10th of 2013, and the interview's being conducted on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-Cities. And I will be talking with Mr. Petty about his experience working at the Hanford site. So, Mr. Petty, if it's okay with you, I'd start with how and why you came to Hanford, where you came from, and when.
Robert Petty: My mother and father came from Arkansas. My dad came in August of '43, my mother in 1948. And I was born and raised here, born in 1948. And I--well, I'm retired from the Department of Energy. I first started working out here at the age of 11.
Petty: My father was in transportation. He would put me in the trunk of his car. And since his brother, my uncle, was a security patrolman, would wave me on through, or wave my dad on through. And this went on for several years. And my dad kept me hidden for those two years. And on numerous occasions, kind of a funny type of note, people had hit deer and killed them. Of course, my dad being the back woodsman that he used to be, stopped and put the deer in the car. And one particular time, I was in the trunk with that deer. And I am screaming, I want to go home, I want to go home. Well, we didn't go home. But I was a laborer. Helped build WNP out here for the nuclear plants, and decontamination and decommissioning of numerous reactor facilities. Pump houses, power stations, and things of that nature. There were some good times and some bad times. The controls that what I would expect I don't think were in place. And starting in 1971, we started doing D&D, and I was allowed to go anywhere I wanted, with the exception of in the reactor facility itself. And we did go into some potential hotspots. And at no time were we told to wear a mask or have a dosimeter. And at no time—all I had was just a badge that had Bechtel on it. And so nobody ever told us to--you know, working around the asbestos—of which I have asbestos-related disease—that you need to protect yourself from not only asbestos, but from potential chemicals, maybe radioactive contaminants and things of that nature. And so I eventually went to work for the Department of Energy in 1990? '91? '91. And I retired as a management analyst due to my health. And then shortly thereafter, I went to work as a senior technical advisor for CH2M Hill.
Bauman: I'm going to ask you to go back a little bit-
Bauman: And go back to the stories first of as an 11-year-old, your dad taking you out to the site. So he was in transportation?
Bauman: And do you know--so he came during the war, correct?
Bauman: How did he—from Arkansas. Do you know he heard about Hanford--?
Petty: Well he--my dad originally was in the Civilian Conservation Corps in central Arkansas. And he had heard about this place out in the desert. And when he got here, I do remember him telling me--he passed away in '82, that, oh my god, what have I got myself into. It is hot. There are windstorms that you just couldn't believe how bad they were. And so he came up here. My mother and father were married at the time. And my mother did come out several times, and then went back home, and eventually settled out here later. And so he was a truck driver, then a bus driver. And then after my mother moved out here, she worked out here from '48 to I think about 1950, working next to a hot box. And she became contaminated. And she eventually died of lung cancer, bone cancer, skin cancer, and multiple myeloma. But when she was contaminated, she was pregnant with me. And I am involved in litigation over this. But trying to prove something is not easy.
Bauman: Where was she working at the time?
Petty: She was working in the 3--I think the 300 Area. I don't remember which building it was. I am not positive the location, but I think it was there.
Bauman: And what was her job?
Petty: I really don't know. No, I couldn't say that for sure. My mom has been dead for a number of years. And so there's a lot of questions you don't get to ask that you would like to have asked.
Bauman: And you were born in '48?
Petty: Yes, November of '48.
Bauman: And did you have other siblings?
Petty: Yes, I have three sisters. Four sisters, one is gone. So I have three remaining sisters. And one now works at Oak Ridge, and I have two that live—one in Pasco, one in Kennewick.
Bauman: And when your dad first came to work here, he came basically by himself? Your mom would come visit sort of, and then--
Petty: Yes, yes.
Bauman: And did they have any kids at that point, or it was just the two of them?
Petty: No, no. My oldest sister wasn't born until June of 1944. But my mother had went back home, then came back numerous times.
Bauman: When your mom was working here, and you said she had symptoms of being exposed, did she know what she was working with at the time, do you know?
Petty: Not really. And now there are procedures in place where if a woman is pregnant or think they may be pregnant, they're not allowed to go in any potential hotspots. That was not the case back then.
Bauman: So your father would basically sort of smuggle you, I guess you could say, into the site?
Petty: Lack of a better word, yes.
Bauman: With the help of your uncle.
Bauman: So what would you do when he got to work with you, then? What did you do during--
Petty: My dad originally started out as a house mover. And one of my particular jobs was I'd get underneath the house and cut the piping loose, take all the asbestos off of the piping, snakes, cats, dogs, dead or alive, indifferent. And odd jobs around that he thought I could do, and so—oh yeah.
Bauman: So what houses were you moving?
Petty: Back in those days, most of them were structural wood buildings from the Hanford site to whoever wanted to buy them.
Bauman: So houses that were on the Hanford site, had been there prior to the war? Some of the older houses?
Petty: There may have been several, but most of them were either on-site or from Camp Hanford.
Bauman: Oh, okay. And so his job was to move those off.
Petty: Right, correct.
Bauman: You crawled under—
Petty: And there are many, many of those still around today.
Bauman: And so how long did you do that?
Petty: Up until after my dad passed away 1982, I decided to sell the remaining equipment and what we had. I didn't want anything to do with that portion of the business. And so from then, I started going back to school. And I have numerous college degrees. And so eventually I went to work for the Department of Energy.
Bauman: So when you were 11 and 12 and out onsite helping your dad, were there other workers there who knew you were there?
Petty: My dad tried to keep me isolated. There were the people around, and they knew what was going on. But they didn't say anything. And there was kind of some camaraderie—you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back. And so they didn't say anything.
Bauman: So you were born in '48. Did your family live in Richland, then?
Petty: Yes. Originally came to Pasco, lived in Sunnyside, then shortly moved on to Richland.
Bauman: And where in Richland did you live in the '40s and '50s?
Petty: I think it was 1311 Marshall.
Bauman: And what was Richland like at the time as a sort of place to grow up?
Petty: Richland, since August of '43 through December of 1958 I think it was, was a government town. And they came in and said, you're going to do what we tell you to do. And since this is a government town, secrecy was of utmost importance. And I didn't remember a whole lot about that per se. But I do remember numerous times where we had to duck and cover in grade school. And we had drills and things of that nature. But on the whole, I do remember Richland being very hot, maybe because there were hardly any trees. And there was so much construction going on around Richland, new homes being built.
Bauman: My sense is that people, workers, families, came from a lot of different places. Was that sort of true? Did you experience that the families that you knew, friends growing up, that they had come from all over the United States?
Petty: My dad did tell me when he first came out here there were people from all over the nation, just about every state in the union. And the men stayed in the men's barracks and the women stayed in the women's barracks even though they may have been married, until their name came up for a house. And times like that were very tough on my mother and father. And I do remember meeting numerous people when I was young telling me that they were from maybe New York or Connecticut or something like that. Yeah.
Bauman: And when you were growing up, do you remember any special community events, parades, any of those sorts of things in Richland? Frontier days?
Petty: I do have pictures of parades. And I have a book from Richland--or Hanford, Hanford Days, Richland Days, I think it is. And it shows parades in there also. And I do have several pictures of parades that we had here in town. And so those were good times. Played Little League baseball, we formed a baseball team and didn't do very well. But on the whole, I think pretty much the only thing we did was--well in summertime—was go swimming. They had a small pool in Howard Amon. But for the most part, we didn't do very much.
Bauman: Okay, let's talk more about the work you did at Hanford. When did you start working at Hanford? Not with your father, but--
Petty: I first started in earnest--I became a laborer in the local laborers here in town. And went to work at FFTF back around '70, the early '70s. And some things that went on, I won't say on camera, because they're not very nice. And when FFTF was first started, it was projected to be about $79 million in costs. And that particular job, being a cost plus contract, ended up being almost $800 million, which you see today, in fact. And my job was just basically a laborer. A broom, shovel, hammer.
Bauman: During construction--?
Petty: Yeah. And it was not uncommon at all to have six or eight laborers on a one-man job. That was very common.
Bauman: And that was--you were working for what contractors?
Petty: Working for Bechtel, Chicago Bridge & Iron. Yes. I think Mellon brothers.
Bauman: And that was in the early 1970s.
Bauman: And then earlier, you had mentioned going places--you said you were allowed to go sort of anywhere, no dosimeter. Could you talk a little bit more about that, like what sorts of places you were talking about?
Petty: A lot of the buildings that you see--or have seen in the past, you'll see pictures of them, many times there was as much below ground as there is above ground, like in the water treatment facility, for instance. We would go down below ground and take out all the scrap iron and stuff like that, all the wiring, all the piping. There were wells, numerous wells around those sites that we went in. And they had a thick brass shaft. We would go down into the well and cut that off and scrap the brass out. And there were numerous of those around.
Bauman: And this was sort of all over different places on the site?
Petty: Yes, yes. And so subsequently, the--I was young, but--and then when I became a laborer, and we pretty much just had the free run of all the facilities, with the exception of the reactor itself. And at no time did I ever think I was in danger. I was born here, lived here, raised here, and worked here. I have no problems going out there today.
Bauman: Now I know, especially during the war and early Cold War years, security obviously was very tight. You had to ride in the trunk of your dad's car to get through. When you were actually a laborer, was there still a lot of security? Did you have to have any special clearances, anything along those lines?
Petty: There was security, but since my dad was a private contractor, no. Although you had to go through a checkpoint—several checkpoints in fact, entering and leaving. And they would check your vehicle for maybe any contraband, drugs, weapons, or alcohol. And if your car did not have a sticker on it, it had to be searched. But since my dad at times had special privileges, was not. And so here's a little story that—I put myself through school. And I was working weekends, but working full-time here. And I gave a tour to a group of senior citizens from Boston. And I got everybody on the bus, and a little old lady with a cane sat up next to me and we got to talking. And she says oh goody, I want you to take me out and show me where the cowboys can shoot the Indians. And she actually believed that they did that today out here. And she asked me what kind of work I did. And I says, well, this is a former nuclear weapons plant. Well, what do they do out here? Well I said, they made plutonium production for nuclear weapons. And she got up and moved to the back to the bus. And that paradigm has not changed in many people's minds. And so they still have a perception of if they get anywhere near here, they may become contaminated. Potentially, maybe yes. But highly unlikely. Highly unlikely. And so I had the perception when I worked out there I'm not going to get contaminated, or I'm not going to get sick or something like that. Well, I was wrong. But I have no compunction about going in places like that.
Bauman: So you worked for Bechtel. And then in '91 you moved to DOE? Is that right?
Bauman: Okay. And what sorts of work did you do there?
Petty: I started in procurement, since I have a procurement degree, working contracts. And after three years there, I moved to the different side of the house. Worked on environmental safety and health as a management analyst. And I was more of a technical person, wrote, maybe, technical reports, read them, made recommendations to the assistant manager, who was the boss of my director. And although I have numerous college degrees, I am not a scientist or anything like that. I'm more of basically just a paper pusher.
Bauman: When you were working out at the site, were there ever any sort of events that stand out in your mind or things that happened? Fires, or anything--incidents like that, I guess.
Petty: I was involved in a very serious accident in which my dad was demolishing and standing too close to a building. And I don't know if you've seen a very, very old silent movie where a silent film screen star was standing in a building and the entire wall just came over on top of him. But he was standing in the doorway, and it missed him. And that's what happened to me. The entire wall came down, and I was standing right in the doorway, and it missed me with the exception of one of the beams had come down and caught me on the head. And I have permanent damage as a result of that. There was a very large fire here which I think covered about 240,000 acres at one time. On national news, people had the perception of this is going to be the end of the Tri-Cities if something goes wrong. Well, nothing was going to go wrong. And there are too many protections in place, and these buildings are too well-fortified to have anything escape.
Bauman: The incident where the wall fell down around you, how old were you at the time of that event?
Petty: I was about 15--16, something like that, yeah. Child labor laws weren't very stringent then. And so I think people got away with a lot more than they should have. Not only with work environment, but it's also--if I can put this very delicately--men living in men's barracks and my mom living in the women's barracks, and there was a barbed wire fence separating them. And my dad told me that the only way that they had relations was through a barbed wire fence. And during the day, they didn't see each other very often. But they would go to dances, and maybe occasionally a vacation. But I don't remember any of those.
Petty: Did your dad have any other stories about his time here before your mom was here permanently?
Bauman: You know, I remember when my mom came up--well, she went back home numerous times in the '50s. And everything she cooked was fried. Fried everything. And she would take the grease and make into gravy, and I thought that was the best food in the world. But now my veins kind of cringe. And that was the way—predominantly, I think, a lot of the diet that people had back then. But I do remember catching several rattlesnakes out here when I was young, at a young age. Which—I don't remember playing with them, I do remember catching them. And I would just let them go.
Bauman: President Kennedy visited the Hanford site in 1963.
Bauman: The NPR. I wonder if--you would have been 15 at the time, roughly?
Petty: Yes, I was 15 at the time. At the time I seen him, he was maybe 40 feet away. And of course my mom thought he was the best-looking man she'd ever seen. And I thought it a very, very interesting, very cool, you know, I get to see the President of the United States. Which he wasn't the first--or he was the first, but he was not the last. But overall, I thought John Kennedy was very, very likable.
Bauman: What else do you remember about that day or him being here at the time?
Petty: When he first arrived, I looked out there and I'd seen a mass of people. And I do remember first thinking, all these people can't be here for the president. But they were. And I really didn't grasp the ramifications of maybe his political influence being the president. And I really wasn't interested in that type of thing when I was growing up. And it kind of dawned on me that this is important. He's a very important man, one of the most important men in the world. And so that had kind of a profound effect on me, and I eventually went into--took government courses in school.
Bauman: Any other times when you were working there at Hanford that you remember dignitaries coming, or other presidents or anything like that?
Petty: We were working on-site one particular day. And somebody was using a cutting torch, and we had started a fire. It was during the summertime. And tremendous amount of cheatgrass around. And I do remember we had started a fire, and it got out of control very quickly. And I thought the building that we were working on was done. But luckily, we got the fire department there in time. And it had consumed several acres and a portion of the building that we were working on, but we ended up saving it. A little scary.
Bauman: About when would that have been, roughly?
Petty: '72. Yeah.
Bauman: And what area of the site might that have been?
Petty: That was 200 West, I think. Yes.
Bauman: Overall, how would you describe Hanford as a place to work?
Petty: In the '40s, '50s, '60s, there was a mindset that it was just a job. And even when I worked out here in the '70s and '80s, I felt it was just a job. And then when I went to work for the Department of Energy, the mission had changed from nuclear production to cleanup. And so to kind of put it in perspective, my grandfather worked out here, my dad worked out here, his brother—in fact all his brothers, all his sisters, all their kids, my sisters. And people have the perception of, well, I'm from here. All my relatives worked out here. Well, you owe me this job. Well, that's not true. And when I worked at DOE, the manager came in one day and we had an all-employees meeting. And he said, all you employees are very well-educated, make very good money, have numerous college degrees. We do not owe you a job. And that's true. And I feel that's the same way here at Hanford. We do not owe them a job. Most of those people are very well-educated. And so in the next 20 years, things are going to be ramping down, probably more so than they are now. And today's paper said that one firm here in town was going to be reducing their staff by 90%. And I think people need to become aware well, the well is going to run dry. It was good while it lasted. And I made very good money here. And I knew my time wasn't going to be here forever. But people I think need to change their paradigms, and I certainly changed mine. And we had some very, very good times out here, and a few bad. And since we have changed to environmental cleanup, everything we do is scrutinized. And from if you spill a quart of gasoline or paint, it has to be written up and you have to make a report. Just to give you an idea of--very, very stringent.
Bauman: When did you notice that change? Was it when it shifted from production to cleanup more, or was it--?
Petty: I think I first started to know the change about 1988, I think it was, when they first--what happened at Chernobyl. I think that was a major turning point. And then they seen the similarities between Chernobyl versus the N Reactor. Although I don't think that could have happened at the N Reactor. And I think from that point on, from the point they shut it down here at the N Reactor, they started to focus more on environmental cleanup.
Bauman: I want to go back a little bit and ask you a little bit more. One of your first jobs was working FFTF?
Bauman: That became somewhat of a controversial facility, to a certain extent.
Petty: Very much so. Not so much--well, it was a cost plus contract. Not so much during the construction and operation. In the initial operation it actually was never really used. There wasn't a whole lot of controversy. But the controversy came later when the government wanted to shut it down. And that's a tremendous amount of money just to let loose of. And it could have done a lot of good. But the government finally decided that it would be best if they shut it down. And a great number of people think it was political, which it may have been. I don't know. Although I'm going to keep my thoughts to myself, and I'm not going to say anything about that. Although when they did shut it down, I do remember doing a number of correspondence with different people from Washington, DC, here at the Hanford site and at DOE here regarding to the FFTF.
Bauman: I wonder for--you said things have changed, obviously, at Hanford site over the years. And I wonder for future generations, people 20 years from now or 50 years from now, what would you like them to know about working at the Hanford site, what it was like?
Petty: Well going back to 1943 when the site was first picked, this isn't something they had ever done before. And their number-one priority, number-one goal, was to end the war. And now their number-one priority is to clean up this mess. This isn't something they'd ever done before, either. This is the largest cleanup project in the world. And subsequently, I think that a lot of this new areas that they're going into is how do they clean up these certain types of chemicals or radiation or contamination. And there's so many things that they don't know and they don't know how to treat. They've never done it before, like the Vitrification plant. This is never something that they've done before. And they say it's going to work, take this liquid sludge and turn it into glass logs. It'll probably work, yes. But it's not something they've ever done before, and I think generations down the road need to realize that we cannot stop plutonium production. There are many, many environmental groups out there, but other countries in the world, all over the world, are now getting nuclear weapons power plants, the potential to produce nuclear weapons. It is not going to stop. And if we stop producing plutonium, uranium, for weapons, nuclear power plants for nuclear or electricity production, then if we're not moving ahead, then we're falling behind. And we are falling behind now, at least in my estimation. And so I think we need to change the paradigms of our youth that this can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing. And if we make it safe enough, with the controls in place, there should be no problems.
Bauman: Is there anything that I haven't asked you about that you think would be important to talk about, or any other memories from your experiences working here that you--
Bauman: --want to share?
Petty: Have you been on-site before?
Petty: Okay, so you kind of understand what's going on out there and the history portion. I do hope that the B Reactor museum comes to fruition, because I think we need to leave a legacy for our children and our grandchildren and generations farther down. And I think it's extremely important not to forget that, but also be respectful and mindful of what we did and hopefully never, never, ever again.
Bauman: Well thank you very much for--
Bauman: --coming in and talking to us today. We really appreciate it. Thanks a lot.