Environmental Monitoring at Hanford

By Zoey Kapusinski

Wanapum Tules
Wanapum Tules

More than 70 years ago, Colonel Franklin T. Matthias flew around the western United States searching for the perfect spot to build nuclear facilities that would produce Plutonium-239 and Uranium-235 for use in World War II. Flying over the Columbia River, Matthias saw a wide open space, plenty of water for cooling the reactors, an abundance of hydroelectric power, and relatively few people. After determining the location of the Hanford Site, the War Department gave the residents of White Bluffs and Hanford, two small farming and ranching communities in the area, just 30 days and little money to evacuate their homes. The local Wanapum People were displaced and soon denied access to the Hanford Reach, inhibiting traditional lifestyle practices including fishing, hunting, and foraging.

However, the creation of the most contaminated nuclear site in the nation did not stop people from spreading throughout the rest of the Columbia River Basin, and Hanford’s lingering contamination is a prevalent issue for those invested in the Columbia River’s health due to fishing, agricultural production, and recreation.

Keeping all of this in mind, you may wonder how safe the food, water, and wildlife are around the Hanford Reach or further downstream. Many government agencies – U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), WA Department of Health (DOH), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) – monitor the food grown around Hanford, sample fish, and assess water quality in the Columbia River. Tribal nations and citizen scientists also conduct scientific monitoring.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), on behalf of DOE, regularly samples alfalfa, asparagus, cherries, honey, leafy vegetables, milk, potatoes, and wine from sites both upwind and downwind of the Hanford Site. DOH takes split samples to verify PNNL’s results. Their most recent data can be found in the Hanford Site Environmental Report for Calendar Year 2013. According to the report, most food samples had radionuclide concentrations below levels that could be detected, but certain contaminants that may have originated from the Hanford Site (such as tritium and beryllium) were found at low levels in some samples.

milkFor example, tritium was found in all samples of milk. However, the most contaminated sample had a concentration of 58 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), much lower than the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 20,000 pCi/L set by the EPA.

Generally, the produce and wine samples in 2013 had concentrations of contaminants that were within or lower than historical levels. PNNL and DOH will continue to test produce and wine and post the results of their findings. You can view their latest reports at the Mission Support Alliance Environmental Reports page.

What about the water? Hanford’s groundwater is not accessible to the public, and no potable water supplies currently exist on site. That being said, many communities, such as the Tri-Cities, draw their water from the Columbia River. Richland, the city closest to Hanford, has drinking water that meets all EPA and state health standards, according to this 2014 Water Quality Report. Although the drinking water is safe, Richland’s surface, well field, and single-well water sources all have a high susceptibility rating, which indicates a high potential of becoming contaminated. For those in the area, ensuring that Hanford cleanup is protective of human health is of vital importance.

The most serious threats to the Columbia River from Hanford are the creeping plumes of contaminants in the groundwater, some of which are entering the Columbia River. The major contaminants are uranium, technetium-99, tritium, strontium-90, iodine-129, nitrate, chromium, and carbon tetrachloride. Despite these contaminants, the river remains safe because the huge volume of water greatly dilutes the concentration of dangerous chemicals and radionuclides.

DOE and its contractor CH2M Hill utilize multiple methods to prevent further contamination from reaching the river as well as to clean the groundwater itself. Probably the most well-known facilities for cleaning Hanford’s groundwater are the pump and treat systems. The pump and treat systems work by removing contaminated groundwater below Hanford, capturing certain contaminants in a specially designed resin, and then reinjecting the clean water back into the ground to “push” the contaminated water away from the river.

Members of the public can access Hanford Environmental Information System (HEIS) well-monitoring data with the Environmental Data Access tool.

Herman_the_Sturgeon-800H
Columbia River Sturgeon

In addition to drinking water, people from all over the Pacific Northwest and beyond are invested in fish health in the Columbia River. Salmon, steelhead, trout, sturgeon, and other fish are regularly sampled by tribal fisheries, NGOs, and other federal and state agencies. WA DOH conducts fish sampling throughout the Columbia River system, including the 51-mile stretch of river that comprises the Hanford Reach. This is the only free-flowing, non-tidal section of the Columbia River, and it provides critical spawning grounds for wild fall chinook salmon.

Contaminants sourced from Hanford, particularly radionuclides, have not been the cause of fish consumption advisories along the Columbia River. According to DOH, salmon, steelhead, lamprey, and shad are generally safe to consume, but others such as bluegill and sturgeon should be consumed at lower quantities due to mercury and PCBs. The most recent report including fish sampling data can be found here.

Fish are not the only wildlife monitored at Hanford. Rabbits, waterfowl, and plants are also included in the 2013 Hanford Site Environmental Report. Among the rabbits and the Canada geese sampled, cesium-137 was not detected, and only one sample of rabbit contained a detectable concentration of strontium-90.

Contaminants were detected more often in the vegetation; however, radionuclide levels remained within historical range of samples collected in similar areas.

Although the public is not permitted to roam the Hanford Site and forage freely, the Comprehensive Land-Use Plan envisions a future where the public would have access to a large portion of the remediated land. Native American tribes such as the Yakama are especially keen to see a fully remediated Hanford so they may exercise their treaty rights in their ancestral home. Whether or not the animals and vegetation at the Hanford Site will be safe for consumption once cleanup is completed remains to be seen.

In the meantime, a wide variety of individuals, public interest groups, and government agencies are fervently working to ensure a protective cleanup. Hopefully, the information provided in this post has been a solid overview of environmental monitoring at Hanford and may be used as a reference in the future.

If you want to participate in public meetings, public comment periods and more, check out DOE’s Hanford Event Calendar. Learn about the Hanford Advisory Board (HAB) here. More information on nuclear waste is provided by the WA Department of Ecology here.

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