Numbers Don’t Always Matter

There has been a big push to get cleanup activities along the river complete by 2015, called the 2015 vision.   The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working with DOE and its contractors to write proposed plans for cleanup at reactor sites along the river.  To prime folks to be ready when these plans are released for public comment, the EPA led an effort to have a series of River Corridor Workshops to do some early education.  The end of school-year timing did not work in our favor for getting a large turnout, but the meetings were hailed by all as a big success.

Hanford Challenge attended the Seattle meeting.  There were maybe 10 “members of the public” in attendance including our staff.  I was not thrilled to have my evening taken up by a public meeting, but I had been a supporter of the concept so I went.  It was one of the best meetings I have attended on Hanford.  A few of us commented as the organizers packed up the room that we could have stayed for hours more to ask questions and have further conversation about these issues.

What made it so good? Originally we were going to be in small groups for three discussions focused on the 300 Area, 100 Area, and N-Area that would rotate.  Since we were such a small group to begin with, we just moved together from one station to the next.  The discussions were awesome.  There was no decision on the line yet, so we could just exchange information, ask tough questions and increase understanding.

When we were on the topic of almost all of the cleaned up waste from the river corridor sites goes to ERDF, the Environmental Restoration Disposal Site something occurred to me that I had never thought before. ERDF is a lined landfill on the Central Plateau that is ginormous, But I suddenly reailized “Are we are reducing one hazard to create another?”  I have always thought it strange that cleanup is moving waste from one place to another but that we are actually creating another hazard had never crossed my mind.  We look back at the people who dumped contamination in the ground that we are now cleaning up, and say, “What were you thinking?!”  I wonder if future generations, faced with gigantic landfills of radioactive crap will look back at us and say the same thing.

Often public involvement is measured in numbers.   When hundreds of people attend a meeting it is touted as a success, but this is not always the case.  Some of the worst meetings I have been to have had large crowds of people who didn’t understand what they were being asked to weigh in on and shared comments that were entirely off topic.  But this meeting, with only 10 people, engaged in meaningful dialogue with agency and contractor representatives was a terrific success.  It is my hope that we work to replicate this kind of meeting in the future and don’t dismiss it just because the numbers are not impressive.

By: Liz Mattson

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