Interview with Maureen Hamilton
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Douglas O’Reagan: My name is Douglas O’Reagan. I’m conducting an interview with Maureen Hamilton on January 20th, 2016. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I will be talking with Ms. Hamilton about her experiences working on the Hanford site and her experiences in this community. Thanks for being here.
Maureen Hamilton: You’re welcome.
O’Reagan: If we could start, maybe—it’d be great if you could just tell us a bit about your birthplace, where you grew up, just a little bit of biography before you got to Hanford, if you would.
Hamilton: Sure. I was raised on a farm in south central Illinois, not too far from St. Louis. So I was a farm girl. I went to college at Monmouth College in northern Illinois, which is where I got my chemistry degree—I got a bachelor’s degree there. I worked briefly for Dow Chemical in Michigan, and then I was working at the University of Missouri in their agricultural chemistry lab while my husband was in graduate school. So there I was doing analysis of various environmental and animal products, looking for heavy metal contamination. Then we were in Germany for a couple of years while my husband was in service, and we ended up out here starting in 1972, where we both worked onsite.
O’Reagan: Sorry to interrupt. Okay, so you came directly from Germany to here?
Hamilton: No, there were a few months finding the job, once we got back. Well, at the time there weren’t a lot of chemist jobs around, I don’t think. So my husband sent out applications to several hundred companies, and Hanford was one of the places that responded. I think possibly because he was a special weapons technician in the Army, they knew—and his master’s degree dealt with some radioactive materials, so that may have been part of why he was hired here.
O’Reagan: Were you familiar at all with the community before you moved here?
Hamilton: No. No, it was something totally—totally foreign to us, but interesting.
O’Reagan: Do you remember your first impressions?
Hamilton: [LAUGHTER] Well, coming out of Idaho and the green into the barrenness of eastern Washington was a bit of a shock, yes. Because I hadn’t seen it, he didn’t really see that much of it when he came for the interview. But we very quickly learned to love the place. I wouldn’t live any place else right now.
O’Reagan: What was the area like in the ‘70s?
Hamilton: It was still a small farming community, pretty much. There was obviously—Hanford was the main employer, as far as Richland and much of the Tri-Cities was concerned.
O’Reagan: Where did you live?
Hamilton: Well, for a couple—we had an apartment off of Van Giesen for a short period of time. Then we moved into a condo apartment out on the Meadow Springs golf course. Then in ’75 we built our own house on Peachtree Lane in Orchard Hills.
O’Reagan: So when you were working on the site, you were industrial hygiene chemist, is that right?
Hamilton: That was my position, yes.
O’Reagan: Would you explain exactly what that is? What’s involved in that?
Hamilton: Sure. The employer initially was the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation, which was the medical contractor onsite. In addition to providing the doctors and nurses, they had the industrial hygiene for the whole site. Industrial hygiene is monitoring of worker health and checking the workplace to make sure that it is safe, that people aren’t being overexposed to things. We had a chemistry lab, and that’s where I was involved. So we would analyze air samples that were collected onsite for things like asbestos or lead or heavy metals or whatever types of materials—non-radioactive. The lab was located here in town at 805 Goethals, so we weren’t onsite. We also did drinking water analysis onsite, and we were doing a little bit of hazardous waste characterization.
O’Reagan: Mm-hmm. So what would a typical working day look like?
Hamilton: Oh, it varied, depending on what was going on. Initially, when I started, we were pretty much—I mean, the industrial hygienists were the people who went out in the field and collected the samples and evaluated the data. The lab—we were very small—I started actually as a technician for a year before I actually became the chemist. We had one chemist, one technician. And then we eventually grew to have a total staff in the lab department of about 20. We would run gas chromatographs, atomic absorption, different types of equipment, analyzing those air and water samples that were being brought into the laboratory. I also eventually—well, initially at least—was functioning as partly a quality person as well. In 1974, the lab became one of the first in the country to be accredited by the American Industrial Hygiene Association. So, while I wasn’t listed as the technical manager or the director at that point, I was kind of the technical expertise for that portion of the company. Eventually, expanded that I did manage the lab component as well as function as their QA coordinator.
O’Reagan: Is that similar to the work you were doing before you came here?
Hamilton: No, my experience before was strictly laboratory. Had no management responsibilities. And while I was using spectroscopy equipment at the University of Missouri, it was more on things like goose livers and grain and things like that. It had nothing, really, to do with human health.
O’Reagan: Mm-hmm. So you said you went out to collect samples at some point, especially in the early career?
Hamilton: Just for a few months, I actually—Hanford had some offsite monitoring systems across the river for nitrogen oxides and I think sulfur oxides. It was things that would have come out of the production facilities. It wasn’t radioactive, again, it was chemicals. So once a week, we’d drive out there and change—they were liquid impinger type samples. So we’d change them out and bring them back and analyze them.
O’Reagan: I’ve read some accounts of local farmers who grew up remembering people coming from Hanford—scientists, to come gather samples from their farm to test for various things. Is that the type of--?
Hamilton: That might have been part of it, because at least one of them, I know, was set up near a barn on the top of the bluffs there, across the river. We weren’t doing any—there were a lot of other people doing radiological monitoring, that was nothing to do with what we were doing. But it’s possible that some of the people where the sites were located would remember. Because they were on private property.
O’Reagan: Did you ever find any safety hazards?
Hamilton: None of what we were—no, we never found anything that was exceeding any kind of limits in those.
O’Reagan: Could you describe the ways in which the security or secrecy of the Area impacted your work?
Hamilton: I mean, since I wasn’t doing radiological, it wasn’t as much so as like what my husband was doing. But if we wanted to give a paper or anything at a technical conference, it had to go through DoE for approval for release. So we worked with very little classified material where I was.
O’Reagan: Can you tell us about what your husband did?
Hamilton: He worked at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, PFP. He was a non-destructive assay chemist, where he was monitoring the plutonium that was being either produced or stored there at PFP.
O’Reagan: That was—did his role change over the course of time he was working there?
Hamilton: He had a few months, initially, where they rotated him through different sites to pick a spot where they wanted to end up. But, no, he spent most of his career there.
O’Reagan: Let’s see. So the first few decades you lived here were during the Cold War. Did you feel that impacted your time here, or was that just something in the background?
Hamilton: I was not nearly as aware of it as some people seem to have been. No, that just really didn’t—was some place off, had nothing to do, really. I didn’t feel like we were in danger because we were close to Hanford or anything like that, no.
O’Reagan: Do you have any impression of whether the community around you also felt that way? Do you know if there were—I don’t know quite what I’m asking here. Was there more of an impression of that, or did people just sort of go about their lives?
Hamilton: I think people here were just used to Hanford as a secret place. You don’t talk about what you’re doing out there, that’s just the way it is. We did our thing and didn’t worry about the rest of the world much.
O’Reagan: Tying back into—tell us a little bit about life in the ‘70s here. Do you feel—I don’t know—the social scene or the feel, the life in the area has changed much over the ‘70s to ‘80s to ‘90s?
Hamilton: Yeah, I would say that’s for sure. For instance, when we built our house out there in what’s now called South Richland, which is across the river, near[EM1] Meadow Springs—the road from there to Columbia Center was still gravel. Gage didn’t exist as a paved road. We were like the second house in the subdivision where we were built. It was mostly still orchards around us, so it was a lot more rural there. There was probably one, maybe, movie theater, the Uptown. And I guess Columbia Center maybe always had one. But there’s a lot more for people to do now, and there’s certainly way more people to do it.
O’Reagan: What was it you liked about living here?
Hamilton: Well, being a country girl from the start, I guess we liked the feel of a small, close-knit community. The job was good. It was very comfortable living. We had good friends. So it was pleasant. We didn’t have a lot of traffic to deal with.
O’Reagan: What sort of things would you do in your spare time, or with the friends in the area?
Hamilton: Oh, one of the things that became a big interest for us was the growing wine industry. We came just about the time it was getting started, and we stumbled into making friends with the Rauners at Yakima River shortly after we got here. So we got to actually help them at times with crushing things, to get to know all about the wine-making process. And we quickly joined the Tri-Cities Enological Society, it was called then. Now it’s just the Wine Society. So we were very much involved with that. We also enjoyed the variety of types of scenery here. Whether you wanted to do something, you were close to the mountains, you were close to the ocean, you had this nice dry, arid climate here, where you could go hiking or do things. So it was an easy, comfortable place to be. Have lots of things—options to do.
O’Reagan: You ever get to use your chemistry knowledge in the wine--?
Hamilton: [LAUGHTER] Learned enough about the wine making process to know I didn’t want to do it. [LAUGHTER]
O’Reagan: You’re—since 1999—a consultant, a public safety consultant. Is that right?
Hamilton: Yeah. When I retired from Hanford, officially, then, basically, I continued for five years going back, doing the same thing for them onsite that I had done as an employee on a part-time basis. But it was in ’95 that I started doing these laboratory assessments for the American Industrial Hygiene Association, which is one of the organizations that had accredited our lab here. So I still do that through—this year’s probably about the last year I’ll do that, but I’ve been doing that for 20 years.
O’Reagan: What’s involved in that?
Hamilton: It’s going to these various lab sites and making sure that they have all the documentation, the properly trained people, that they’re following the procedures and doing it in accordance with the now international quality requirement.
O’Reagan: So you’ve been involved in some of the historical organizations around here. When did you first start getting involved in those?
Hamilton: Pretty much after I retired from Hanford. I knew I wanted to do something locally, too. And I had visited the CREHST Museum from way back when it was still in the Federal Building. So that was the first thing I did. I started out reviewing some of their oral histories and then gradually, as I had more time during the day, I would serve as kind of a fill-in docent for them, and did various projects for them. Then when they were transitioned out and replaced by the REACH, I moved over there.
O’Reagan: Mm-hmm. What is it about that work that you find rewarding? What is it that draws you to work with them?
Hamilton: Well, I think it’s extremely important to maintain the history of what was going on here at Hanford. This is certainly a unique and important part of our country’s history. I’m very pleased that the National Park has been designated. That will be an important part of preserving all of this. I like—people need to know their history. So I think the Hanford history is—as well as the exotic geology we have here, the effect of the Ice Age floods and everything. This is unique area, both geologically, and historically, I think.
O’Reagan: Mm-hm. I guess it’s more common today, but do you ever feel you are treated differently as a woman scientist over your career?
Hamilton: [LAUGHTER] Unfortunately, yes. I had to do a little fighting to get some equal pay when I first came out here. But it was easy enough to do. And in the field of industrial hygiene, women have been moving in quite a bit, actually, there. Probably almost equal number of women as men in this field now.
O’Reagan: Interesting. Anything else about your time working on or around Hanford that leaps to mind that you’d like to talk about? Anything that was particularly unusual, or just sort of curious, or otherwise noteworthy?
Hamilton: No, I can’t really think of too much that at least I wouldn’t want to talk about. [LAUGHTER]
O’Reagan: Sure. What would you like future generations to know about working at Hanford or living in this area over the course of time you’ve been here?
Hamilton: Well, I feel it has been a very rewarding experience, a very good place to live. I think it’s environmentally very pleasant. The work at Hanford is certainly important. The fact that the first commercial scale nuclear reactor in the world was developed here. The speed at which things were done back then. The government regulation has become extremely burdensome since then and it’s much harder, but when Hanford was a production facility, it was something you felt like you were contributing to the society and to the world.
O’Reagan: What haven’t I thought to ask, or should I be asking?
O’Reagan: Anything? Anything come to mind? I try to go for the open-ended questions.
Hamilton: Yeah. I think the culture at Hanford really changed when they shut down. And now that it’s just a cleanup site, the loyalty, the sense of responsibility to the site, I think, has gone away. There’s a lot more disputes, unhappy employees, some of which may or may not be based on fact. There’s just not the continuity there was when people could work there for 30 years and know that’s where they were going to be for their lifetime. There was a lot more dedication to it. You felt like you were accomplishing something.
O’Reagan: Of course, the cleanup may be still going in 30 years!
Hamilton: Well, I don’t—do not print this part—but as far as I’m concerned, it’ll never get done. [LAUGHTER]
O’Reagan: So were those documents you brought—
Hamilton: Well, I brought some articles out of some of the Hanford newspapers and things. I didn’t know if you have access to some of those types—I assume you do. But I just thought I’d show you some of those, if you were interested.
O’Reagan: Yeah, we’d love to go through them. Any of them in particular that would be worth talking about now?
Hamilton: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, it’s mostly things like the history of what was happening there with the environmental health. You can take a look at—one of the things that I think was important when I was there yet, and the industrial hygiene function—the health and safety function was focused in one company, it was better controlled, there were records that were kept, and everybody knew where they were, and they were being maintained. The first thing they did was they took the hygienist away from—well, first they took the respirators away from HEHF. Then they took the hygienists, separated them, and moved them, spread them out all over the contractors onsite. Then they moved our industrial hygiene lab out with the environmental lab, and we became a very small thing, compared to a bigger thing. Now, if you go out—we repeatedly would do things that had already been done, because the contractors changed, they lost the records, they have no history. That just added to the jumble. I feel sorry for the workers who have to try and recreate their health histories. Because I don’t think the records since the early to mid ‘80s are anything like they used to be.
O’Reagan: Do you feel safety was a priority on the Hanford site during your time there?
Hamilton: I think it was. They did what they could to the best of their ability with what they knew at the time. So I think it really was a very safe place to work. Yes, there are things that have happened. Yes, there were exposures. But then that was happening in any industry, no matter where you go. People learn because they see what’s happening. They don’t test animals on everything before they put it into practice. No, I think it was a very—you would hear of very few accidents, per se. There were asbestos exposures, there’s beryllium, there’s radiation, but it’s just part of industry. So I don’t think it was any different.
O’Reagan: Okay. Anything else we should look through that you have?
Hamilton: Well, you can keep that. That’s my resume. I’d like that other—if you want a copy of that other, I can send it to you. This one had some information just about the industrial hygiene lab being recognized. I don’t know if you want any—
O’Reagan: Is that a picture of you?
Hamilton: That’s me, way back when these were—and these are all Hanford-taken pictures. So they’re ones you could get, but I could make copies of those for you, too, if you wanted them. These are just—there’s Dr. Meader, these are some of the people at HEHF. That’s about all that’s in there.
O’Reagan: Great. Yeah, we have—we’re just setting up our scanning stations, so we might see if we could get copies of some of the pictures.
Hamilton: Okay. I know these I have on the computer. I can send you. There are three of these early ones of me in the lab. I could send you those.
O’Reagan: Yeah, I know there have been a number of oral history interviews and interest in some of the women who were assigned to this, around the site, or to work on the site.
O’Reagan: So I think it’d be very interesting for that as well as the safety aspects are very interesting. And then also just everyone’s experiences in the area--
O’Reagan: --are worth knowing.
Hamilton: One of the unique things I got to do were I got to go on one of the first People to People occupational health trip to China back in the early ‘80s.
O’Reagan: What was that like?
Hamilton: Fascinating! [LAUGHTER] There were 23 of us, I think. We stayed in places like the Royal Palace in Beijing. We definitely had Chinese people who told us where we could and couldn’t go. [LAUGHTER] We were not allowed on the street by ourselves. When we were there with the group, people were just awed by us, because we looked so different. They were all still in their blue suits and not much else. One of our people had a Polaroid camera and having an instant picture was just amazing to them. We got to go to hospitals and factories and things that normal tourists wouldn’t see.
O’Reagan: That was all sponsored through Hanford, or part of your job?
Hamilton: No. HEHF paid my way, but I’m not sure—I mean, I belonged to the American Industrial Hygiene Association, the professional organization, and somehow, they put my name on a list, and HEHF said, yes, they’d pay for it. So I went. [LAUGHTER]
O’Reagan: That’s very interesting.
O’Reagan: Did you get to do other travel over the course of your time?
Hamilton: Well, I went to conferences and things, but nothing as exotic. Yeah.
O’Reagan: Okay. I think that’s most of the sort of set questions that I had down, but anything else you think is worth the time to chat about?
Hamilton: I can’t think of too much else. I think you’ve got the overall picture. [LAUGHTER]
O’Reagan: All right, well, thank you for speaking with us. It’s been very interesting.
Hamilton: Sure. Okay.