The Hanford Nuclear Reservation: Almost 600 square miles containing some of the most contaminated soil on the planet; nearly 800 individual waste sites, polluted by a miscellany of radioactive and toxic substances that are toxic for thousands of years; millions of gallons of deadly chemicals dumped or leaked into the ground over several decades; plutonium and uranium dumped into rudimentary ditches and open trenches for decades; contaminated groundwater flowing into the Columbia River, which boarders the waste zone for about 50 miles; 350 miles of downstream habitat, used on a regular by hundreds of thousands of people.
The statistics are startling, the cleanup daunting and the notion of how such a place came to exist bewildering.
"Hanford is our father's curse on us, and what we do or don't do to clean it up will be our curse on our children," said Keith Harding, one of several dozen Gorge residents in attendance at a Tuesday public meeting in Hood River.
Formal public meetings, held by representatives of the Tri-Party Agreement (U.S. Department of Energy, Washington State Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), took place this month in Richland, Seattle, Hood River and Portland to gather public comments on a proposed cleanup plan for 21 waste sites in the reservation's "Central Plateau." The sites - some of the most contaminated in the reservation - contain soil, storage tanks and equipment highly contaminated by plutonium and cesium, among other chemicals.
Public comments were taken as a formality to the TPA's process of decision on what methods will be used to clean up the 21 sites. Preferred alternatives for the cleanup were presented at the meeting, and the overwhelming public opinion was that those alternatives were not thorough enough.
"There's enough plutonium at Central Plateau sites to make 70 nuclear weapons," said Dan Serres, Columbia Riverkeeper conservation director and Hanford Advisory Board member at the meeting. "We're talking about material in the soil that's going to be dangerous for tens of thousands of years. Cleanup is not discretional; it is a moral responsibility."
Public questions and comments took sharp odds with the TPA's preferred alternative of cleanup for areas with high levels of plutonium contamination. The alternative shows removing and treating soil down to just 2 feet below the waste site.
A USDE representative said the original alternative was to simply cap the area and move on to other cleanup, but that extensive public objection inspired a different approach. He also said that the plutonium, at its current state, is stable and not moving through the soil into the water column.
"Without our voice this would not be a cleanup; it would be a cover-up, said Gerry Pollet, Heart of America Northwest executive director.
"The large crowd of windsurfers, kiteboarders, and other river-users at the Hood River hearing speaks volumes for the public's concern about leaving massive amounts of plutonium in unlined trenches," Serres said. "Until the State of Oregon and citizen groups demanded a public hearing, the Department of Energy had no plans to hold public forums to explain why it wants to leave roughly half of the plutonium in the soil in some areas at Hanford."
Pollet and others questioned why a mark of only 2 feet was the alternative, rather than digging down and testing soil until acceptably low contamination levels were found.
A graph provided in TPA documents shows a depth of soil chart in relation to plutonium contamination at one of the waste sites.
Using samples from bore holes, plutonium waste mass at 20 feet is 51 percent. According to that data, then, if the cleanup took 20 feet of soil, about half of the plutonium mass would be removed. The chart estimates that at 104 feet a 100-percent threshold would be reached.
Following a public comments period that ends Aug. 5, TPA plans to review comments and make a decision on treating the 21 waste sites by the end of September.
Hanford and the Hood
When asked about radiation levels in the Columbia River downstream of Hanford, and monitoring of those levels, a Dept. of Energy spokesman at the meeting said that one monitoring program lasted into the late 1990s, but because samples continued to come up negative, the program was halted.
An?EPA repreentative then said that his agency was conducting regular chemical sampling closer to the Hanford site.
"We do know that toxic chemicals like Stranium, Hexavalent Cromium and Plutonium are entering the river from Hanford," Serres said. "But, as far as pollution getting down to the Hood River area and having a harmful affect on humans, I'm not as concerned about that right now."