Environmental Justice for Columbia River Tribes at Hanford

Written By Gerry Pollet

Photos  © Alison M. Jones

Gerry Pollet is a Washington State legislator; faculty member at the University of Washington School of Public Health; and Director of Heart of America Northwest, a leading citizens’ group working for cleanup of Hanford Nuclear Site.1For Hanford cleanup information: www.hanfordcleanup.org In monitoring the pernicious legacy of plutonium leaking into the Columbia River, Heart of America Northwest also advocates establishing maximum fish consumption and pollution exposure levels that reflect the lifestyles, diets and well-being of Native Americans, low-income immigrants and communities of color.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation (aka Hanford Nuclear Site) covers 580,000 acres in central Washington State. Here the United States produced the plutonium (Pu) as part of the Manhattan Project, to create the world’s first atomic bombs – used in WWII against the Japanese. The United States continued producing plutonium in this desert steppe valley for use by tens of thousands of nuclear weapons via Hanford’s nine reactors along the Columbia River. That stretch of 50 miles was designated as the Hanford Reach National Monument link by President Clinton in 2000. Its beauty – and risks posed – were documented by NWNL in 2007 during its “Source-to-Sea” Columbia River Expedition. [See our NWNL Voices of the River interview with Gerry Pollet in Hanford.]

Hanford’s production of plutonium for nuclear weapons contributed to what many call the greatest environmental injustice in the past century. The plutonium Hanford produced was used in the bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. Hanford plutonium has also been used in tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that continue to threaten the existence of all life on Earth.

Hanford Nuclear site seen from the north with the Columbia River.

Plutonium Production has Led to Injustice Upon Injustice

Because of water available for hydropower from the Columbia River, that cheap source of electricity and relatively few local residents, Hanford was chosen as the site of the first plutonium-producing reactor and for massive facilities to extract plutonium from the reactor’s fuel rods. However, that siting assessment ignored the thousands of Native Americans who lived along this river, especially in winter due to its natural abundance of food and medicines. In 1943 and 1944, members of the Yakama, Umatilla, Wanapum and Nez Perce tribes were forcibly removed from the Hanford shores of the Columbia River, despite treaty rights to live and fish there. While white farmers received some compensation for their farmland, Native Americans received nothing – despite being the original inhabitants of the Columbia River Basin.2Atomic Heritage Foundation (partner of National Museum of Nuclear Science & History), “Civilian Displacement: Hanford, WA,” July 21, 2017.   https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/civilian-displacement-hanford-wa

Then, even though the US Government knew that the contamination it was pumping into the Columbia River was deadly, the US “invited” the four tribes back to camp, hunt or fish as a result of pressure from Wanapum Chief Johnny Buck in 1944. In 1957, the Washington Supreme Court legalized fishing rights of Native Americans. Plutonium production and processing ceased in the early 1990’s. But although Hanford is decommissioned, it is still heavily contaminated and thus unfit for Native Americans to fish there for consumption purposes.3Murphree, Daniel. Native America: A State-by-state Historical Encyclopedia, Vol 1. Santa Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2012. P 1210

The US Department of Energy (USDOE), which was founded in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, now runs Hanford. The DOE now spends over $2 billion per year “cleaning up” its plutonium contamination and monitoring over 150 million gallons of high-level nuclear waste in leaky, single-cell tanks. Resulting contaminated groundwater flows through the soil to the river. Right alongside the river, radioactive Strontium-90 (90.Sr.) contamination levels reach over a thousand times the federal drinking water standard. This contamination isjoined by plumes of hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)), trichloroethylene (TCE), uranium (U) and many other contaminants.

Hanford Nuclear Site, 300 Area (Fabrication, Examination and Developement Laboratory and Chemical Waste Storage Unit)

Currently, the DOE and Trump administration are refusing to consider that in exercising their treaty rights to live along and fish the Columbia River shorelines, Native Americans consume far more fish than the average American. This traditional subsistence diet leads to a far greater exposure to Hanford’s contamination and far higher risks of cancer and illness.

USDOE’s “cleanup” plans for the high levels of contamination around Hanford B and C Reactor Areas are critically vital to the culture, religion and sustainability of the Yakama Nation. Yet, per our December 2019 Heart of America Northwest workshop, USDOE’s efforts are based only on “abandoning high levels of radioactive and chemical contamination in river shoreline waste sites and in groundwater flowing into the Columbia.”4USDOE Deadline Newsletter, Heart of America Northwest, Dec 8, 2019.  https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Your-comments-needed-by-tomorrow–Hanford-Columbia-River-shore-contamination.html?soid=1102643130307&aid=jlETEPc_g7E USDOE’s “Preferred Alternative”, which Heart of America Northwest calls “USDOE’s non-cleanup plan,” USDOE would leave pollutants in place, with some shoreline soils unsafe for general public use until 2247 (specifically, 187 years at one site and 39 years at others). USDOE’s timeline for establishing safe Hexavalent chromium levels in surface water would be 60 years, and 15 years for drinking water. Safe Strontium-90 levels in drinking water would take 70 years.  The workshop presentation also states that contaminants now entering the Columbia River are at levels over 1,500 times higher than federal drinking water standards.

Eastern bank of Columbia River, swimmers and waterskiers with no concern over nuclear waste in river.

Working with the Yakama Nation, Heart of America Northwest has documented the risks to Native Americans fishing and living along the river – according to their right, as guaranteed by treaty. The toxic risks for Native Americans would be far greater than for the average person.

Russell Jim, a Yakama Nation Elder and mentor to Heart of America Northwest, created and led the Yakama’s environmental program to watchdog Hanford and its nuclear waste cleanup.5American Heritage Foundation, In Memoriam: Russell Jim, April 2018.https://www.atomicheritage.org/article/memoriam-russell-jim Before passing away in 2018, he squarely confronted state and federal officials with his views and was an eloquent advocate for the health of future generations of the Yakama Nation. Russell stated that a DOE decision to leave contamination in place – at levels with far greater risks to Yakama children and adults than to average white people – would be “genocide” and would continue a pattern of environmental racism.

What is genocide? We now recognize that the early settlers’ possible, one-time distribution of blankets contaminated with smallpox (meant to infect Indians) would be considered a genocidal policy – as would denial of their health care, and removal of their children to boarding schools. Russell claimed that if the US deliberately decided to ignore the risks of cancer and other illnesses that are hundreds of times higher for tribal members (particularly children) than for white constituents, then that would be the same as genocide.

At one dumpsite in the center of the Hanford Nuclear site, state officials propose to allow groundwater contamination levels to reach levels we calculate would cause cancer in 2 to 5% of Yakama children. Officials responded that “only” 2.5 out of every 1,000 exposed tribal members would get cancer. Their proposed contamination level however would be at least 25 times less protective than the minimum cancer risk standard required for Hanford’s cleanup by CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, aka EPA Superfund). It would also be 250 times less protective than Washington State’s standard.

East side of Hanford Nuclear Site, seen from across the Columbia River.

Under the Current EPA

The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission has stated that the EPA’s recent rollback of standards ignored the higher toxic exposures to Native Americans, who eat more contaminated fish than the “average” person,” in their traditional diets as they live along the Columbia River per their treaty rights.6Loomis, Lorraine, “Being Frank: Tribes outraged by EPA move to roll back improved water quality standards.”  Sequim Gazette, Sept 4, 2019.  http://www.sequimgazette.com/opinion/being-frank-tribes-outraged-by-epa-move-to-roll-back-improved-water-quality-standards/

This dietary risk from consuming much more fish is referred to as a “tribal exposure scenario.” The new EPA ruling withdrew approval of Washington State’s pollution control and cleanup fish consumption standards that accepted this “tribal exposure scenario.” Thus, Heart of America Northwest is now organizing a publi request to Washington State and EPA to require the USDOE to:

• adopt a cleanup plan to remove contamination along the Columbia River shorelines

• use a “tribal exposure scenario” (regarding higher exposure for Native Americans to contaminated water, fish and soils) when calculating the negative health effects of leaving contamination in place.

These newly reduced pollution standards also affect the health of other Washington tribes beyond those in the Hanford Reservation. In joining a Washington State lawsuit against the EPA to overturn its water-quality ruling, the Quinalt Nation president said:

“Fish and shellfish are at the center of our diet, religion, economy and every aspect of our life…. The EPA’s attempt to rollback protections for our health and clean water is an affront to the Quinault people and a violation of our treaty rights. If eating the fish we catch exposes us to quantities of toxins known to cause cancer and other severe health conditions, our treaty rights amount to little more than an empty promise.”7Harbor News, KXRO News Radio. QIN joins in lawsuit against EPA; states their fish intake higher than other groups.” Oct 11,2019. https://www.kxro.com/qin-joins-in-lawsuit-against-epa-states-their-fish-intake-higher-than-other-groups/

SOURCES:

1.For Hanford cleanup information: www.hanfordcleanup.org

2. Atomic Heritage Foundation (partner of National Museum of Nuclear Science & History), “Civilian Displacement: Hanford, WA,” July 21, 2017.   https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/civilian-displacement-hanford-wa

3. Murphree, Daniel. Native America: A State-by-state Historical Encyclopedia, Vol 1. Santa Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2012. P 1210  

4. USDOE Deadline Newsletter, Heart of America Northwest, Dec 8, 2019.  https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Your-comments-needed-by-tomorrow–Hanford-Columbia-River-shore-contamination.html?soid=1102643130307&aid=jlETEPc_g7E

5. American Heritage Foundation, In Memoriam: Russell Jim, April 2018.https://www.atomicheritage.org/article/memoriam-russell-jim

6. Loomis, Lorraine, “Being Frank: Tribes outraged by EPA move to roll back improved water quality standards.”  Sequim Gazette, Sept 4, 2019.  http://www.sequimgazette.com/opinion/being-frank-tribes-outraged-by-epa-move-to-roll-back-improved-water-quality-standards/

7. Harbor News, KXRO News Radio. QIN joins in lawsuit against EPA; states their fish intake higher than other groups.” Oct 11,2019. https://www.kxro.com/qin-joins-in-lawsuit-against-epa-states-their-fish-intake-higher-than-other-groups/

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