The Tri-Cities has always punched above its weight when it comes to news.
The Hanford nuclear reservation, the Columbia/Snake river hydro system, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory combine to draw national, even global, attention to the region.
So it’s not surprising that the Mid-Columbia’s top news stories of 2018 touch on local issues such as park safety and 911 management, to the career trajectory of Jim Mattis, the native Richlander who until this weekend was President Trump’s secretary of defense.
Here are the stories the Tri-City Herald’s reporters and editors say left the biggest mark in the past year.
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1. Devastating wildfire burns homes
Five homes destroyed and three more damaged when a wind-driven fire roared into Kennewick on a hot August day.
Likely sparked by a car along Interstate 82, the flames broke free of firefighters when a “fire tornado” picked up burning debris, carried it over the freeway and ignited the bone-dry grass.
The blaze scorched hillsides from Canyon Lakes to Inspiration Heights to Finley.
Two horses died. No people were significantly hurt.
The fire was a wake-up call that is sure to guide development and emergency planning for years to come.
One immediate takeaway: Don’t head toward disaster. Kennewick Fire Chief Vince Beasley reported firefighters were slowed by curiosity-seekers.
2. Hospitals sold
The Tri-City healthcare landscape underwent a seismic shift in 2018 as RCCH HealthCare Partners of Tennessee purchased the assets of Kennewick’s public hospital district, which had filed for bankruptcy protection in 2017.
A few weeks later, it closed a separate deal to purchase Pasco’s Lourdes Medical Center.
RCCH then merged with LifePoint Health, a for-profit enterprise.
LifePoint issued general statements about opportunities for growth while retaining local leaders.
It’s not yet clear how the newly acquired hospitals will change in the coming months and years.
But there is one immediate question. The Tri-Cities Cancer Center is jointly owned by Trios, Lourdes and Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland. The cancer center wants to retain its nonprofit status, but Trios and Lourdes now are for-profit.
Discussions are ongoing.
3. Plutonium spread at Hanford
The news just got worse in early 2018 after a spread of radioactive particles was discovered in December 2017 at the Hanford nuclear reservation’s most hazardous demolition project, the Plutonium Finishing Plant.
Demolition halted and has yet to resume. Crews began removing prior debris in December.
In 2018, more radioactive particles were found well beyond the areas where they were supposed to be contained. Investigators detected particles across Hanford streets, at other project sites and in small amounts near areas where the public is allowed.
At least 11 workers inhaled or ingested small amounts of radioactive particles in connection with the December incident.
Seven private vehicles, including a rental car, and government vehicles were contaminated, including some driven into the Tri-Cities.
Contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. said mistakes and mismanagement led to workers being exposed in its evaluation of the situation. In a key finding, it said the radioactive air monitors used at the highly hazardous site weren’t up to the job.
In a later incident, a worker assigned to Mission Support Alliance took a contaminated piece of rigging equipment associated with the plutonium plant from the site in July without first checking it for radiation.
The worker drove the equipment to two Hanford locations, then to a contractor facility in north Richland, and then back to Hanford, where it was properly secured.
4. Secretary Mattis resigns
Richland native James Mattis resigned as U.S. Secretary of Defense shortly before Christmas, a move taken as a rebuke of the president’s decision to withdraw from Syria. The retired Marine general’s resignation letter drew comment from around the globe for its unsparing tone.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.
“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” Mattis wrote.
Mattis planned to serve through February but Trump discharged him at the end of December. The president appointed Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive and Northwest native, to serve in an interim capacity.
5. Dangerous Hanford tunnel work
Tri-City area mayors demanded that work begin as soon as possible to stabilize a 1,700-foot-long tunnel at the Hanford nuclear reservation storing highly radioactive waste.
A video inspection inside the tunnel showed that it was at higher risk of catastrophic collapse than previously indicated by a structural review, potentially putting the public at risk.
The inspection followed the partial collapse in May 2017 of a shorter tunnel, which was filled with grout under emergency conditions. Both tunnels hold rail cars loaded with obsolete and defunct equipment contaminated with high-level radioactive waste.
The Department of Energy and the coalition of mayors asked Washington state to skip its public comment process on DOE’s plan to fill the tunnel with concrete-like grout starting in the summer.
The state declined, but issued a decision allowing the grouting within 24 hours of the end of the comment period, over the objections of a Seattle watchdog group.
In October, the first of about 5,000 truckloads of grout were added to the tunnel, with half of the grout injected into the tunnel in late December.
6. WinCo shooting
Veterinarian Jenna Kline, 33, survived being shot in the head while shopping at Richland’s WinCo grocery store on July 30, a seemingly random attack that shocked the community.
Her alleged attacker is Matthew D. McQuin, a 45-year-old truck driver from Umatilla with a troubled psychiatric past and a history of drug use. Security video shows McQuin enter the store, fire at Kline and eventually set his .22-caliber pistol on a checkout stand.
He then sat down until officers arrived.
A state psychologist found McQuin competent to stand trial on charges of first-degree attempted murder. His defense attorney disagrees.
7. Smoking, choking summer skies
Smoke from wildfires in Washington and Canada blanketed the region, leading to a second summer marred by choking smoke.
Tri-City air quality was rated “hazardous” by the Washington State Department of Ecology in August, one of the worst readings on record.
Washington residents scrambled to secure respiratory masks rated N95 or N100 that could stand up to the airborne debris. Outdoor events were canceled, children were kept indoors and people were advised to not exercise, even indoors, when air quality was at its worst.
People at the highest risk from smoky air were advised to ask their doctors if they should leave the region until air quality improved.
The horrid air in the Tri-Cities was blamed by some on increased forest fires caused by global warming and inadequate management of Northwest forests to prevent fires.
8. 911 consolidates
In August, all Mid-Columbia 911 calls began funneling into the Southeast Communications Center in Richland, fulfilling a long-held dream of a single point-of-contact for all emergency calls.
Under the old system of a center in each county, mobile phone calls were routinely sent to the wrong center, leading to dropped calls and delayed responses. Franklin County’s dispatch equipment also was past its useful life, further endangering citizens.
Leaders considered several options to consolidate 911 into a single, state-of-the-art facility.
In the end, Pasco and Franklin County each paid a $500,000 buy in fee to join SECOMM. Most Franklin dispatchers were hired on to keep up with the added call volume.
In a related end-of-year development, SECOMM was affected by the CenturyLink breakdown that affected 911 access across the state. Dispatchers fielded calls through the non-emergency number — 509-628-0333 — that should be in your phone next to 911.
9. Ex-school chief sentenced for child sex crimes
A federal judge sentenced Paul W. Rosier to 10 years in prison after the retired Kennewick School District superintendent pleaded guilty to attempted child sex trafficking.
It was a stunning fall from grace for Rosier, 76, who retired in 2014.
He was arrested in 2017 at the Richland Hampton Inn as part of an undercover sting targeting individuals who pursue sex with minors on the internet.
Rosier believed he was meeting with a 16-year-old and a 13-year-old for sex, but he had actually been communicating with a detective posing as a teen on Craigslist.
Rosier was the most prominent defendant associated with heightened efforts to police the internet for predators seeking children for sex.
Most notably, the 2017 Net Nanny Operation by the Southeast Washington Internet Crimes Against Children netted 26 men, whose cases are in the process of being adjudicated.
The task force conducted additional stings that netted additional defendants in 2018, most recently a local mechanic who was arrested on Dec. 4 as he sought to meet up with a girl he believed to be 13.
10. Deaths lead to changes at Palouse Falls
Palouse Falls State Park got bluntly worded signs and new fences that officials hope will keep visitors from attempting to access treacherous areas where four young men have died in recent years, including two this spring.
“Warning — People have died here,” reads one. “We want you to live — Stay back from cliff edge”.
Isaac Engell, 23, of Colville, drowned while swimming below the falls on April 21.
Noble Stoneman, 25, a recent Washington State University who had been hiking on an unmarked trail, died May 10 when the ledge he was standing on crumbled. He fell 50 to 100 feet into the water. His body was later recovered from the pool below the falls.
- The LIGO Observatory at Hanford detected four more sets of black holes.
- Eltopia farmer and NFL veteran Clint Didier won election to the Franklin County Commission, his fifth attempt at public office.
- Mid-Columbia farmers reported an excellent growing season but trade wars triggered by tariffs and retaliatory tariffs put an estimated $650 million in Washington crops
- Ben Franklin Transit was forced to cut night and weekend service to hundreds when its contractor, A1 Tri0-City Taxi, abruptly closed after the scope of contract was reduced by $1 million.
- Stephanie Murray Judd, 37, of Benton City died when a tree limb fell on her during a Sept. 22 outing to the Ye Merrie Greenwood Renaissance Fair with her husband and son to Kennewick’s Columbia Park. The family is seeking $2 million from the city.
- The eclipse sent thousands to Oregon to experience the rare total eclipse. For those heading home by way of Interstate 82, the trip was marred by an epic traffic jam. The eclipse coincided with a major reconstruction that closed one of the two spans that cross the Columbia River at Umatilla.