REPERCUSSIONS: Environment

DURING THEIR TENURE Manhattan Project biologists secretly studied the effects of their industry on the surrounding area's flora and fauna. Classified research projects and experiments continued throughout the years studying the environmental effects of nuclear production with the intent to find solutions to mitigate consequences of radioactive contamination. However, unforeseen environmental follies resulting from radiation leaks would present themselves and continue to do so today.

A rather surreal example environmental contamination occurred sometime in May 1956 when a group of swallows were discovered forming radioactive-tainted mud from the 107-H liquid waste trench for nests. The report listed "concentrations ranged from 0-6 particles per 100 ft with a maximum reading of 150 mrad/hr." The swallows had dropped the "hot" mud around the 100-H water tower and scattered along the flight path to White Bluffs area across the river. To remediate the situation nests were removed and the waste trench was covered with clean gravel. [1] Nests built by mud dauber wasps were found to be radioactive across six acres near the H reactor in 2003. Contaminated mud was created during dust control mitigation when a basin attached to the reactor had been demolished. Nearly a foot of soil was dug up to remove the nests from the area. [2]

Numerous reports of radioactive insects include ants, mosquitos, flies, and gnats have been showing up in the media since public disclosures of Hanford activities became available in the 1990s. In 1998, trash of Hanford origination had apparently become contaminated from contact with radioactive gnats and flies from a sugary coating used to process some type of radioactive materials. The contamination spread to Hanford workers' office waste such as apple cores and banana peels. The incident forced Hanford to remove thirty-five tons of trash brought to the local public landfill to be transferred back to Hanford for burial. [3] The awareness that invertebrates have "the ability to concentrate radioactivity in their tissues at levels vastly higher than the levels originally discharged into the environment" was known as early as the late 1940s. [4] Coincidentally, a series of insect control campaigns appeared around the same time at Hanford.

Mice, rabbits, and larger predators including coyotes have been found at the Hanford site with radioactive contamination. In 2010, the Tri-Cities Herald reported that a radioactive rabbit had been caught in the 300 Area just north of Richland. The majority of the contaminated animals are found within the center of the reservation. This rabbit was located close enough to the site's boundaries to be a potential human health threat if the animal, for example, had been caught and brought home by a local family's pet dog. Hanford workers searched for radioactive droppings but failed to locate any in publicly accessible offsite areas although droppings were present in areas closed to the public. The contractor responsible for cleanup in the 300 Area—Washington Closure Hanford—trapped several rabbits including one found to be highly contaminated with radioactive cessium. It was speculated that the rabbit drank contaminated water located somewhere in the 327 Building used during the Cold War for testing highly radioactive materials such as irradiated fuel elements and cladding. A total of thirty-three contaminated animals or animal materials such as fecal droppings were found on the site in 2009. [5]

The potential for radiation contamination along the Hanford Reach was always of great concern. This fifty-one mile stretch of rocky shoreline supports eighty percent of the Columbia River Basin's naturally spawning Chinook salmon population. Not only did radioactive and chemical additives present in effluent produce negative, often fatal effects on Columbia River salmon and other species—the heated effluent wastewater, a by-product of the production process presented a major obstacle for salmon as they need cold, pure water to properly function and reproduce. At the start of Hanford production activities beginning in the 1940s, the Chinook salmon fishery was at varying times (and for different reasons) in extremely poor health or simply on the brink of collapse. By 1959, it was reported by Hanford biologists "that the number of Chinook salmon spawning in the vicinity was only about 19 percent of that of 1958." [6] Salmon and other fish species populations continue to suffer the repercussions of Hanford's past nuclear production activities as chemical and radioactive plumes slowly make their way towards the great river.

An independent researcher based in Spokane claimed in 1999 that mulberry bushes growing along the banks of the Hanford Reach were highly contaminated with radioactive strontium. Norm Buske, considered by mainstream press as a "maverick scientist" actually sent a jar of jam made with the plant's allegedly radioactive berries to then Washington State governor, Gary Locke. Although his strontium findings where largely "discounted" by the Washington State Department of Health, he is still allowed access to the Hanford site to continue research heralded by many community watchdog groups for his continued commitment to unbiased independent scientific research.

Natural environmental threats such as wild fires also pose serious problems for Hanford. Fires at Hanford become a much more complex issue considering hidden radioactivity at the site. Much of south central Washington consists of dry, arid desert prone to fast-moving, wind-driven wildfires. In June of 2000, one such fire ended up engulfing 164,000 acres of the site just after it had been designated as a national monument. It was speculated that a potential threat from radioactivity released in the burn existed as vegetation is known to absorb and concentrate radioactive materials. Understandably, local firefighters fighting the blaze were nervous. Although environmental monitoring initially showed that no radiation was released during the burn, it was later confirmed by August of 2000 that elevated plutonium and strontium-90 levels did indeed exist. [7] The Seattle Post Intelligencer reported that the fire came within a half-mile of more than 1,200 partially buried barrels of unknown origin that contain possible radioactive and other chemically toxic elements. [8]

When former President Clinton announced by executive order on June 9th, 2000 that nearly 200,000 acres bordering along the Hanford Reach would become a national monument, he guaranteed the conservation of the fifty-one mile stretch of wild river that had been ironically preserved in its pre-agricultural form by the government's forty-year occupation of the Hanford Site. Because this stretch of river contains no dams, salmon nesting areas have been miraculously preserved fostering one of the most significant and productive wild fall Chinook salmon breeding habitats in the state. Hanford's designation as a national monument not only preserves wildlife and open space—it also allows us to reconsider the negative associations of the Cold War's former industry and the generation that created it—if, of course, the powers that be are actually able to reasonably remediate the site for future generations.

At this time, multiple billion-dollar cleanup efforts are taking place at Hanford and are expected to continue for at least fifty to one hundred years at a cost of $50 to $100 billion for the U.S. Treasury. [9] This statistic does not take into account the solutions or costs to dispose of Hanford's monumental toxic wastes in the years to come. It also does consider that more people have worked at Hanford since the Cold War ended than were ever employed during Hanford's forty-some years of plutonium production—more than 11,000 people are involved in daily cleanup operations today. [10] In a nation where the capital-driven military industrial economic engine awards billion dollar, multi-year site cleanup projects to the highest bidding corporate contractor an institutionalized cycle of repetitive industrial contamination and remediation is engendered and guaranteed for future generations to come.

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