DOE to begin work on historic landfills

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerSeptember 1, 2009 

The Department of Energy plans to start work today to excavate the historic landfills that hold day-to-day trash generated by more than 50,000 Hanford workers and their families during World War II.

Unlike most other environmental cleanup at the Hanford nuclear reservation, this trash will be checked for historical significance as it is unearthed.

"Information collected from the waste sites will be used to construct a social history of Hanford workers," said Tom Marceau, cultural resources supervisor for Washington Closure Hanford, a DOE cleanup contractor.

The two landfills hold household trash from what once was the world's largest trailer park and a sprawling camp of hutments, barracks and cafeterias to feed and house workers racing to produce plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping end the war.

The area where the WWII trash was buried and burned on the closed nuclear reservation remains littered with bottles, crockery and other debris. It's all just a teaser of what lies beneath the soil.

In some places, it's difficult to take a step without the crunch of breaking glass underfoot.

Four years ago, the plan was to dig up the first of the landfills as part of cleanup along the Columbia River and deposit the contents in the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility, a lined modern landfill in central Hanford.

But that was before archaeologists nationwide started weighing in, succeeding in getting the first landfill ruled eligible for listing on the National Register for Historic Places.

"It is rare to discover such a large and varied assemblage of archaeological materials," wrote Douglas Scott, then president of the Society for Historical Archaeology in 2006. "Artifact studies that may be performed may become a significant contribution to 20th century archaeology in the United States."

Under the new plan, Washington Closure has awarded a contract worth up to $275,000 to Brian F. Smith and Associates of San Diego to provide historical and archaeological support for cleanup of one landfill and an option for the second.

Both are near the former town on Hanford, which was condemned to make way for the nuclear reservation. The construction camp was built adjacent to the empty town. One landfill was near the construction camp trailer homes and the other near the barracks.

A traditional archaeological dig with workers excavating by hand with brushes and trowels has been ruled out as too hazardous. Boiler fuel was added to the landfills to burn debris and at least one portion of the landfill is made up almost entirely of glass objects and pieces, with little soil.

Instead, mechanical excavators will lift out about a foot of material at a time and move it to a sorting trench about three feet wide and 90 feet long. The debris will be checked first for potential hazards such as chemical contamination or radioactivity. Although the landfills are believed to have been used for household trash from 1943-46, workers cannot rule out the possibility that some industrial Hanford debris might have been added later.

Once an initial safety check is done, archaeologists will remove objects that look interesting such as bottles, jars, food bones and personal items. In addition, they'll sift about 10 percent of the material through a quarter-inch-mesh screen to catch smaller artifacts.

They have an idea what they'll find from some limited sampling of one of the landfills in 2005 that turned up 339 largely intact items.

A detailed inventory reads like a search of the kitchen and bathroom cupboards of the 1940s: an Old Spice cologne bottle, a mange treatment bottle, an art deco perfume bottle, a Smith Brothers cough syrup bottle, an aqua green Coca-Cola bottle, a whisky bottle, a Trappy's Tabasco Peppers Sauce bottle, a Log Cabin syrup bottle and a yellow teapot with gold flowers and leaves.

As the landfills are excavated, items that might contribute information about life at the construction camp will be evaluated at a trailer on site. Some will be selected by Brian F. Smith and Associates and the CREHST museum to be saved and stored at Hanford with other historic artifacts. They are intended to demonstrate the range and types of material in the landfills. The rest will go to the central Hanford landfill.

Archaeologists hope to answer some basic questions with the materials. Since metal and possibly other material was recycled during the war, they'll try to figure out what items are missing. They'll consider the dates of the items collected and try to determine if the items can be associated with different genders or ethnicity. One landfill is near the segregated barracks for black workers.

But archaeologists also want to see what they can learn about the workers and their families and how they lived, Marceau said.

For instance, Gen. Leslie Groves, a key leader of the Manhattan Project, has been quoted as saying that women at the Hanford construction camp lived with few normal amenities.

"Just how 'stark' those conditions may have been and how few 'amenities' may have been available may be revealed" by the landfills, wrote the Department of Interior when it ruled that the first landfill was eligible for listing on the National Register for Historic Places.

But to add context to the items, archaeologists are asking for the public's help. Washington Closure Hanford is looking for people who lived at the construction camp to share their memories in oral histories. Call 509-430-8522.

The archaeologists' work is expected to take about three months. A draft of the social history could be finished in early 2010.

The public may follow progress at projects/HanfordConstructionCamp.html.

w Annette Cary: 582-1533;; More Hanford news at

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