From Einstein to football, the top Mid-Columbia stories of 2016

This undated photo shows physicist Albert Einstein, author of the theory of relativity. LIGO, the highly specialized space observatories at Hanford in Washington and in Louisiana, detected gravitational waves 100 years after Einstein predicted their existence in 1916.
This undated photo shows physicist Albert Einstein, author of the theory of relativity. LIGO, the highly specialized space observatories at Hanford in Washington and in Louisiana, detected gravitational waves 100 years after Einstein predicted their existence in 1916. Associated Press file

In the Mid-Columbia, choosing the top story of 2016 was a no-brainer: Local scientists played a starring role in one of the most important scientific discoveries of the century.

LIGO, the highly specialized space observatories at Hanford in Washington and in Louisiana, detected gravitational waves, 100 years after Albert Einstein predicted their existence.

The breakthrough has major implications for human understanding of astronomy, physics, and the nature of time, space and the creation of the universe. It easily topped the list of 2016 stories, as ranked by the Tri-City Herald newsroom staff.

LIGO Hanford detects gravitational waves

The scientific breakthrough was made at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory just north of Richland at Hanford and its twin observatory in Louisiana.

Detection of gravitational waves holds promise to open up a new way for scientists to learn about the universe, much of which may be made up of matter unlike what we’re familiar with on Earth.

The first gravitational waves detected were created by two black holes that collided 1.3 billion years ago, sending ripples through space and time that passed through the Earth.

The discovery, made in September 2015 and announced in February after data analysis, confirmed Einstein’s theory of relativity. It also was the first time two black holes were observed orbiting each other and then colliding.

Before 2016 was up, the LIGO Hanford detection of a second wave of gravitational waves made by black holes colliding was announced.

ACLU issues scathing assessment of Pasco police

In February, on the first anniversary of the death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes at the hands of three Pasco police officers, the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a scathing report, saying Pasco officers lack critical training, services for Spanish speakers are inadequate and the community has no meaningful input into police practices.

The report made no mention of the police department’s efforts to improve its relationship with the public and review its policies and procedures.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Program, or COPS, would issue a similar, albeit less scathing, assessment later in the year.

Both reviews stemmed from the 2015 shooting of Zambrano-Montes, a 35-year-old farmworker from Mexico who was shot at 17 times after he had been throwing rocks at police and passing cars at a busy intersection. The case triggered backlash and even efforts to press the Washington Legislature to change the standards under which officers can be charged with crimes.

Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant and the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington each declined to press charges, saying the officers acted with good faith.

The year ended with a long-awaited coroner’s inquest at Columbia Basin College. The inquest jury agreed with prosecutors that the shooting was justified.

Big cost increase, long delay at Hanford vit plant

The Hanford vitrification plant deadline to be fully operating was extended for 14 years until 2036 by a federal judge.

Ground was broken in 2002 on the plant, being built to turn up to 56 million gallons of radioactive waste held in underground tanks into a stable glass form for disposal.

Work has been stopped on key parts of the plant since 2012 because of technical issues concerning the treatment of high level radioactive waste.

The Department of Energy, with support from its regulator Washington state, has come up with a plan to jump-start the plant by initially treating some of the low-activity radioactive portion of the tank waste.

The bad news is starting low-activity waste treatment by 2022 and related costs is adding $4.5 billion to the last verified cost estimate of $12.3 billion for building and commissioning the plant.

The new cost estimate does not include costs yet to be estimated related to resolving technical issues for high-level radioactive waste.

The vit plant also made news in 2016 when the companies building and commissioning the plant agreed to pay $125 million to resolve allegations that they charged DOE for materials and work that did not meet the exacting standards required for nuclear facilities. Bechtel also was accused of illegally using taxpayer money to lobby.

A case was filed in federal court by whistleblowers and joined in November by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Kennewick Man to be reburied

More than 20 years after the 8,400-year-old bones of Kennewick Man were found along the banks of the Columbia River, the skeleton will be put to rest.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., pushed through legislation in 2016 requiring the ancient bones to be turned over to Columbia Basin tribes for reburial.

The bill, requiring the bones to be returned to the tribes within 90 days, was signed by President Obama in mid-December.

The tribes sought to rebury the bones since they were found during Water Follies in 1996, but a federal judge questioned whether the bones were from a tribal ancestor and ruled that scientists could study them.

Advances in DNA testing led to the 2015 conclusion that the bones were more closely related to the tribes than any other modern day people.

The Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Colville tribes and the Wanapum band have selected an undisclosed location to bury the skeleton they call the “Ancient One.”

Trump taps Richland’s Gen. James Mattis for Defense gig

President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis sent ripples through the Tri-Cities.

The general, known as a “Marine’s Marine,” is an Eastern Washington native who grew up in Richland. At 16, he moved with his family into a tidy Alphabet House adjacent the Columbia River. Since retiring in 2013, it has been his legal residence, though Mattis continues to travel widely, including to California where he serves with the Hoover Institution, a public policy think tank at Stanford University.

In the military, Mattis was known for his uncommon concern for the welfare of men and women in the ranks, going so far one Christmas Day to volunteer for officer of the day duties at Quantico. Mattis, who is not married, reasoned that the young officer scheduled for the job was more needed at home by his wife and young children.

In retirement, he’s dazzled his neighbors with his commitment to participate in the daily routine of civic life. He served on the Tri-Cities Food Bank board for thee years, speaks regularly at local service clubs, and lends his name and time to veterans and veteran affairs.

CRF Frozen Foods shuts down over Listeria outbreak

A major Pasco food processor that employed hundreds shut down in April after goods produced at the plant between September 2013 and May 2016 were linked by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to nine illnesses. There were three deaths, one attributed to the strain of Listeria linked to the CRF outbreak.

The company recalled 456 frozen fruit and vegetable items produced under a variety of brand names, and shut down its plant pending an investigation and re-sanitation. Despite early indications that the plant would reopen, it has not done so. In December, a company spokeswoman indicated that the plant would reopen in the future but gave no further details.

The CRF Frozen Foods outbreak was the fifth biggest food safety story of the year for Food Safety News, an industry publication.

The CDC closed its investigation into CRF in July, warning that the outbreak remains an ongoing threat because of the large number of recalled items still stored in customers’ freezers.

Kamiakin High School football takes state

Led by dual-threat quarterback Zach Borisch and a stable of talented wide receivers and defensive backs, the Kamiakin High School football team won the first state championship for a Kennewick school with a 14-7 overtime victory against O’Dea in the Class 3A title game.

The Braves suffered losses to Chiawana and 4A finalist Richland during the regular season, but finished the year with a 12-2 record and eight consecutive victories, including a 30-27 nail-biter of a semifinal win over Eastside Catholic — which had been to the four previous state finals.

Kamiakin matched up against 13-0 O’Dea in the state title game, and for three quarters could manage almost nothing on offense. But Borisch — the AP’s All-State 3A Player of the Year — hit Darreon Moore on a 53-yard pass play to tie the game at 7-all late in the fourth quarter, which forced overtime. Then Borisch rushed for the go-ahead score on the Braves’ first drive of OT, with a defensive stand sealing the victory.

Borisch, a senior, was named to the Tri-City Herald’s All-Area first team, and was joined by teammates Isaiah Brimmer (sr., wide receiver), Wyatt Musser (sr., offensive lineman), Hayden Larson (sr., defensive lineman), Alex Bayuk (sr., linebacker) and Moore (sr., defensive back).

Tri-Cities continues economic growth streak

The Tri-City economy entered its fourth year of continuous expansion in March.

By November, it was the third fastest-growing metropolitan area in the state as a percent of growth and for the actual number of jobs created. The economy added almost 5,000 jobs in the 12 months that ended in November, the most current figures available from the Washington Employment Security Department.

Hanford-related employment was the biggest winner, with about 900 more jobs than the year prior. But the economy showed signs of diversification as well, with manufacturing picking up 800 positions, education and health services and leisure and hospitality each adding 700 positions, and trade, transportation and utilities and retail each adding 600 jobs.

The category called “local government” grew by 400 positions, chiefly the result of school-related hiring to keep up with enrollment growth.

Hanford workers, state fight for vapors protection

More than 60 workers reported smelling suspicious odors or experiencing respiratory symptoms that could be caused by chemical vapors at the Hanford tank farms in 2016.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focusing on worker safety and health, confirmed that thousands of air samples showed few, if any, exposures exceeding limits set to keep workers safe from chemical vapors.

But workers and union leadership have considerable distrust in the way Hanford officials are managing chemical vapor issues, the agency said. Workers fear that exposure to chemicals could cause serious neurological and respiratory illnesses.

Hanford officials have invested $50 million toward vapor safety improvements, including a current pilot test of the effectiveness of the most advanced equipment available to track and detect chemical vapors.

In July, the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, a coalition of 15 unions, issued a stop work order at Hanford unless workers wear supplied air respirators. Hanford officials agreed to require the respirators for any worker to enter a tank farm. The chemical vapors are associated with tank waste.

Concerned about the many worker reports of possible vapor exposures, the state of Washington and other plaintiffs asked a judge to impose additional protections for workers until a lawsuit they brought is resolved at trial in 2017.

The judge declined, saying supplied air respirators provided protection until then. A judicial order banning work that would disturb tank waste, which can increase the possibility of vapors being released, was lifted. But the judge cautioned his interim ruling should not be taken as a denial that vapor exposures have occurred or have caused serious illnesses.

Herald reporters Annette Cary, Wendy Culverwell and Dustin Brennan contributed to this story.