A day that forever changed the Mid-Columbia

December 23, 2012 

Saturday marked the 70th anniversary of the day that forever changed the Mid-Columbia and set into motion actions that altered the face of superpower warfare.

Tuesday, Dec. 22, 1942, began like an ordinary day — soon to be forgotten amongst other ordinary days.

A cold front was coming and local weatherman Al Morgan informed the weekly Kennewick Courier-Herald that snow and precipitation levels were ahead of last year’s.

That day, no one paid attention to a small military airplane flying northward across Rattlesnake Mountain toward Gable Mountain and across the land where farmers eked out an existence along the banks of the Columbia River near the small towns of White Bluffs and Hanford.

Routine winter life had settled into the Tri-Cities. The big news featured the opening of a “deluxe” Safeway store in Pasco. The Pasco Herald devoted three pages to this modern convenience. Air conditioning promised comfortable shopping when summer heat arrived.

Fifty cents bought you a ticket to watch the University of Washington Huskies basketball team take on the Pasco Navy Flyers. The Roxy Theatre in Kennewick featured Barbara Stanwyck in the movie Gambling Lady. Both newspapers listed numerous Christmas services, concerts, and New Year dances. Some of the smaller headlines tucked inside the fine print included: Finley Man Spends Week-End in Portland Pearl Harbor Picture to be Shown at Library Colored Boys Band to be Stationed at Pasco Marines Resume Recruiting of Men Lost Sheep Found

One article published in the Pasco Herald grabbed my attention. It spoke of a Herman Rauschning lecturing at Washington State College (now University).

Rauschning was a German who had “fled the Nazis to save his life following disagreements with Hitler’s policies.” The Pasco Herald reported that he said “New surprises, unorthodox weapons (possibly including gas and bacteria) (and) new assaults may be expected now that Hitler has virtually taken over the military direction of the war. ... He (Hitler) asserts that a nation fighting for its life should use any tool that lies at hand to inflict damage on its enemies.”

I sensed an uncanny timeliness in Rauschning’s warning.

Unknown to the United States, a modest German program to build an atomic bomb had begun three years earlier. Rauschning’s talk was delivered Dec. 22, the same day a lone airplane carrying a young reserve officer named Colonel Franklin Matthias flew over the Columbia Basin.

Colonel Matthias, an associate of General Leslie Groves who headed the top secret Manhattan Project, was leading a reconnaissance team canvassing sites in Montana, Washington, Oregon, and California to build the world’s first plutonium production facility.

Plutonium was the metal of choice for making an atomic bomb.

On that Tuesday, Matthias took off from the Yakima Air Base, flew south along the Deschutes River to near Madras, Ore., and then returned to Washington, crossed the Horse Heaven Hills and into a vast stretch of lowland desert bounded by basalt hills and the Columbia River.

As written in Stephen Sanger’s book Working on the Bomb, Matthias recalled “I thought the Hanford site was perfect the first time I saw it ... we found the only place in the country that could match the requirements for a desirable site.” Three months later, a directive was issued for the federal government to acquire 670 square miles of land stretching from the Columbia River to Rattlesnake Mountain and from the Saddle Mountains to Richland. Imagine, that footprint covered almost 10 percent of Washington.

Some 1,300 people had to vacate their land. Disputes against the federal government remained in the courts for years. Today, Hanford’s footprint spans 586 square miles and the site’s mission has shifted from plutonium production to environmental cleanup.

To date, 300 square miles of Hanford’s outer land holdings have been remediated. That looks great on posters showing visitors Hanford’s shrinking footprint. However those lands were not contaminated. They contained mostly old military buildings and debris plus one public observatory.

While such work restores land for other beneficial uses, linking footprint reductions to cleanup progress creates an illusion of progress.

Cleanup achievements should be measured by risk reductions resulting from permanent declines in contaminant concentrations and the amount of waste recovered, stabilized, contained, isolated, or packaged compared to what existed before.

The Department of Energy’s current vision is to have another 210 square miles of land along the Columbia River cleaned by 2015.

That date will be missed. But for the moment, let’s assume it’s met.

That action would reduce the Hanford’s footprint to just 75 square miles centered on the site’s central plateau. The inner area of that plateau includes five reprocessing plants, 900 excess facilities, 800 waste sites, untouched transuranic contaminated burial grounds, 177 underground storage tanks, most of Hanford’s deep soil contamination, and some of the site’s worst groundwater contamination.

While work continues to shrink Hanford’s footprint, little of the site’s approximately 350 million curies of radioactivity and 400,000 tons of chemicals, mostly found in the central plateau, has been touched since cleanup began almost a quarter of a century ago. Over that time, $30 billion has been spent on waste management and environmental restoration activities.

An additional $115 billion is projected to be needed through the year 2060. By now, we should recognize that we can’t spend our way out of Hanford’s mess nor administratively regulate contamination problems away.

Perhaps limited substantive progress will continue until the price of not expeditiously tackling Hanford’s most pressing problems exceeds the price of fixing them.

Nonetheless, the Hanford of today is safer than the Hanford of yesterday.

This results from work accomplished to improve waste handling, safely demolishing buildings, exhuming contaminated soil, recovering polluted groundwater, removing fuel rods from the K-Basins, and constructing critically needed facilities for waste treatment, packaging, and storage.

Nonetheless, Hanford’s most complex and costly remediation is yet to come. Hanford’s most contentious decisions have yet been faced. And Hanford’s need for innovative problem-solving science and technology has never been greater. Yet that funding has been slashed.

Though some may not like hearing this — most of Hanford’s remediation progress, with the exception of demolishing buildings or digging up contaminated soil and hauling it to a landfill, had its origin in problem-solving research. When a single environmental impact study covering Hanford’s tank closure and waste management takes 10 years, 6,000 pages, and $85 million dollars to produce, it is little wonder cleanup appears adrift and the public is shaking their heads.

Today’s headlines in the Tri-City Herald featured the government’s looming fiscal cliff, legalization of pot, same sex marriages and proposed changes to Hanford cleanup deadlines.

Some topics really have changed over the years.

However, unless measures of cleanup success are recalibrated and more defensible strategies implemented, then we may face a modern version of Colonel Matthias flying into town carrying news that few people will like. Roy Gephart is a retired environmental scientist with 38 years experience in environmental management issues. He has authored two books on Hanford.

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