Toxic Mistrust

Hanford-billboard-Silence-Means-SecurityAlthough I was born and raised in Walla Walla, just an hour southeast of Hanford, I did not hear many stories about this nuclear site as a child. If someone did say something about Hanford, it was in passing. The statements usually went something like this: “They are cleaning it up;” “That place gave my sister thyroid cancer;” or “My grandfather worked out there during WWII.”

It was not until my junior year at Walla Walla University that I began to really delve into the story of Hanford. This research culminated in my undergraduate senior thesis—The U.S. Department of Energy and Washingtonians: A Toxic Dose of Mistrust—which analyzed Washingtonian response to the involuntary release of over nineteen thousand pages of previously classified documents in the 1980s pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request.

These pages revealed, among many things, that the level of nuclear and chemical waste released into the air was much greater than the government had previously told the public. For example, the U.S. government intentionally released radioactive fission products from Hanford on December 2-3, 1949, in what is referred to as The Green Run. The radiation—with highest recorded levels nearly one thousand times higher than the then acceptable daily limit—affected populated areas of eastern Washington and Oregon. This news was especially painful to Walla Walla’s neighbor; the Tri-Cities, an area historically known for its patriotism, atomic culture, and trust in the federal government.  Even the Tri-City Herald, a local newspaper, declared that the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) and the DOE (Department of Energy) had betrayed and lied to the community after the documents were released.  Dr. Michele Gerber, a Hanford historian, asserts that when these nineteen thousand pages of documents were released, “a mantle of collective historical guilt was laid over the Tri-Cities . . . as if the residents were somehow to blame for the situation they had just discovered.”

Many Washingtonians were irate over the news.  Some individuals called the DOE “pigs;” some expressed concern for future generations and the environment; and one person demanded a murder trial, stating that the DOE should be on trial “because for 40 years the people of this state have suffered grievously. We’ve been exposed and exposed.”  One Washingtonian, Dana Lyons, even wrote a song and used it as public comment at a meeting on July 15, 1986, called “Our State is a Dumpsite.”  The song includes the lyrics, “Well, I lost my job here fishing and opened up a store, I buy and sell reactors, cooling towers, and lead doors. We’ve got a brand new industry bearing fruit of finer taste. We sell juice to California and get paid to keep the waste. Our state is a dumpsite, plutonium 239, Our state is a dumpsite, just set it over there, that’s fine. Our state is a dumpsite, we’ll take whatever you send, Our state is a dumpsite, where the hot times never end.  We’re singing here in Washington, the ever-glowing state.” You can listen to a clip of the song here.

Unfortunately, the DOE has not done enough to rebuild public trust in my opinion.  To this day, newspaper articles, books, comments from public involvement meetings, and reports by independent organizations reflect a similar mistrust found in the 1980s. Until the DOE brings a more transparent approach to communication about cleanup, the cleanup era of Hanford will continue to be plagued by tension and inefficiency.

This tension between government agencies and the public over environmental safety and public health, so close to my hometown, drove me to attend Seattle University School of Law to gain the tools necessary to become an effective advocate for Hanford issues. During law school, I interned at Hanford Challenge as the Matthew Henson Environmental Law Fellow.  While at Hanford Challenge, I drafted and filed four whistleblower retaliation complaints, submitted Freedom of Information Act requests, prepared client statements, and participated in a three-day-long forum for shared conversation between various stakeholders in Hanford cleanup (DOE, Contractors, EPA, Ecology, public interest groups, etc.).

After obtaining my law degree last year, I returned to Hanford Challenge as Staff Attorney to continue advocating for transparency, worker health and safety, and environmental justice.  Hanford presents the next generation with complex problems that require nuanced solutions.  I have hope that with the input of the next generation, lasting solutions will be reached.

I close with a quote about Hanford transparency from the father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer: “To keep completely secret the design of the Hanford files [reactors] I think has never been a controversial thing. To keep secret the fact that we don’t know how to do some things may be controversial because it may be that we really need some ideas, and the classification, or keeping secret, our ignorance of an area in which we haven’t been able to make any progress may in some cases be a very serious hindrance to getting the insight, the bright ideas, and the progress which would come if a much wider group of people could be interested.”

By: Nikolas F. Peterson

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