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From Fishermen's News of September, 2002

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Avoiding a Radioactive Columbia River

Glen Spain
Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations

For fishermen, the abundant fall chinook salmon runs of the Columbia’s Hanford Reach are a happy accident threatened by an environmental tragedy.

Approximately 70 miles long, and into Washington State only 35 miles from the Oregon border, the Hanford Reach is the only undammed stretched of the once mighty Columbia River. It is also the home of the largest remaining wild fall chinook runs still remaining in the river. This fall chinook run is now the only Columbia River salmon run which is not listed as either “threatened” or “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act, and thus is a mainstay of what remains of the Columbia-based salmon fisheries all the way up to where they intermingle with other salmon runs in Southeast Alaska.

Even though these fish still have to run a gauntlet of four large hydropower dams, the fact that they still have decent river habitat for spawning and rearing makes the difference – they are surviving, even thriving, when all the other runs around them are facing extinction. The abundance of fall chinook from the Hanford Reach is, in fact, one of the few reasons commercial salmon fishing still exists over much of the Washington coast and well up into Alaska. If we become constrained on that stock too, then many of the last remaining salmon fisheries in the Northwest may have to close.

Ironically, the reason this stretch of river was left in its natural state is part of the tragedy that haunts it today. The Hanford Reach runs right through the once top-secret Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The Hanford site was chosen by the U.S. government in 1943 as part of the U.S. war effort to produce enriched uranium and plutonium for the nuclear bombs of the Manhattan Project. It was selected because of its remote location and the abundant flow of fresh water from the river, available to cool nuclear reactors. Some 1,200 local residents were evacuated from the area and it became a 560 square mile (and largely undeveloped) military research reservation in the middle of arid Eastern Washington.

Hanford continued to produce highly radioactive nuclear fuel and plutonium for nuclear weapons until the 1980’s, when it was finally closed and abandoned, leaving behind a deteriorating industrial complex that was too radioactive to continue to use. Like so many military projects of the era, little thought was given to later cleanup. The practice of the time was to just walk away from the problem and let others deal with it later.

Efforts to grab the land for development since closure have been ongoing and intense. Fortunately, under the Clinton Administration, with support from commercial fishermen and many others, the land was designated as a national monument in a hotly contested debate over its fate with local farmers and ranchers (see “Hanford Reach Protection a No-Brainer,” FN May 1999, available at: www.pcffa.org/fn-may99.htm).

Leaving a Legacy of Nuclear Waste

Unfortunately, today the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is one of the most radioactive places in the world. Little was known about the dangers of nuclear waste in the 1950’s and 60’s when the place was at its peak of production, and disposal methods were primitive. For years, the chosen disposal method for the tons of toxic industrial chemicals and highly radioactive slurry needed to produce just one pound of plutonium was to put the stuff in single shelled underground tanks or to bury it in barrels in unlined trenches. Over the last 50 years an estimated 440 billion gallons of contaminated liquids were directly disposed of by pouring them into the ground.

The site now contains 177 underground storage tanks in a huge “tank farm,” holding millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste in a soup of highly corrosive chemicals and potentially explosive. At least 67 of these underground tanks have leaked at least one million gallons of highly radioactive waste into the groundwater. More tanks begin leaking each year as they continue to corrode. More than 200 square miles of Hanford’s groundwater aquifer have now been contaminated. Further contamination comes from 2,300 tons of corroded spent nuclear fuel rods held in two water-filled basins less than 500 yards from the Columbia River. The place is one huge Superfund toxic waste site, which the law requires the federal government to clean up.

Unfortunately, plumes of radioactive waste are now slowly migrating through the aquifer toward the Hanford Reach, threatening critical fall chinook spawning and rearing areas. Some studies have already found traces of these radioactive and toxic chemicals leaking into the river, though thankfully not yet in amounts to cause serious health concerns. But unfortunately, more contamination is only a matter of time. The question is, what can we do today to prevent this problem from becoming much worse in the future?

One small comfort is that the situation used to be worse. When Hanford was in its production heyday in 1964, contaminated water used to cool nine plutonium production reactors was also carrying radioactive wastes far downstream. Contaminated groundwater first reached the Columbia River in the 1950’s. During that decade filter-feeding shellfish well down the Pacific coast, well south of the Columbia estuary, started showing up with very high radiation levels from short-lived isotopes that could only have originated at Hanford. In 1954 alone it was estimated that almost 3 million curies of radiation were released directly or indirectly into the river from the Hanford facility.

Since the closing of Hanford as a working nuclear facility, however, much of this impact has dissipated. However, the legacy of vast amounts of nuclear wastes left behind is still a ticking time bomb. The leaking underground tanks, and the contaminated groundwater plumes moving toward the river, mean a radioactive future for the river -- unless the mess can be cleanup up in time to avoid a serious radiological disaster.

Coming To Grips With Cleanup

In 1989, an alarmed Washington government entered into the Hanford Federal Facility Agreement and Consent Order (referred to as the “Tri-Party Agreement” (TPA)) with the federal government that provided the framework under which the Department of Energy (DOE) promised to clean Hanford up. A plan evolved over several years, and a series of environmental impact statements were published, culminating in a plan to remove 99 percent of the remaining wastes from the tank farm, and “vitrifying” (entombing in glass) much of the wastes for later transport and permanent disposal in a national nuclear waste facility planned for Nevada.

In other words, the DOE promised to clean their mess up! To their credit, the first Bush and later Clinton Administrations made valiant efforts to implement the plan, which is expected to cost nearly $100 billion over three decades. However, many institutional and technical problems have since intervened and the cleanup plan is still largely a failure. Meanwhile, bitter debates over the establishment of a permanent national nuclear disposal facility raged for many years. It was finally decided by Congress just this year to locate the site in Nevada, a decision still being challenged by Nevada.

Congress, however, has shown itself unwilling to fully fund the planned Hanford cleanup, and contractor incompetence and negligence has brought the plan perilously close to disaster. Yet neither has the DOE come up with a better plan. Meanwhile the Hanford tank farm continues to leak, and the danger of a serious explosion increases.

Faced with a huge price tag, a reluctant Congress, an incompetent federal agency and unforeseen technical problems that were going to be expensive to fix, the stage was set for a new Administration to seriously backslide on cleanup commitments.

“Bury It and Walk Away” Policy Returns

The current Bush Administration does indeed have a “new” plan, but based on an old policy. In February, it proposed to “save money” by terminating the current cleanup effort early (i.e., by 2035) and keeping much of the waste in place, simply by declaring Hanford an official “National Radioactive Waste Dump” and burying or keeping it there.

To add insult to injury, as part of the Administration’s new plan even more waste would be added to the cleanup problems we already have. The plan also calls for shipping massive amounts (70,000 truck loads) of new radioactive wastes from all over the country into Hanford for disposal in unlined soil ditches (sound familiar?).

The disposal technology to be used – burying barrels in unlined dirt trenches – is the same grossly inadequate disposal technique used 40 years ago that continues to contaminate the groundwater today. It does appear cheaper, naturally, to abandoned any real cleanup efforts and just dig pits and bury the stuff in barrels – so long as you ignore the long-term consequences to the groundwater, the river, its fisheries, and health risks to the nearby City of Richland, Washington, which gets its entire drinking water supply from just downriver.

In other words, the Bush Administration now proposes to make the problem worse rather than actually clean up the site. In a study commissioned in June by the whistleblower defense group Government Accountability Project, GAP concluded that the new DOE plan, if implemented, could result in the following:

Our view, and the view of many DOE cleanup critics, is that NO more radioactive or hazardous wastes should be shipped to Hanford until a complete cleanup has been completed. We also believe abandonment is NOT the same as “cleanup,” and that actual decontamination and cleanup of the site has to be done and this is an obligation of the federal government.

In any event, the risk to the Columbia River and to the Hanford Reach (and the entire west coast salmon fishery) is simply too great to allow Hanford to become a nuclear waste dump site – either by deliberate policy or by simply walking away from the mess that is already there.

Salmon Markets At Stake

Commercially caught and naturally grown wild Pacific salmon have an enormously good reputation around the world because they are a superior, healthful and tasty product. In spite of massive incursions into our markets by the farm-fish industry, often through extremely deceptive practices, our fish are still greatly in demand and we want to continue and if possible expand that demand. With a little effort, new labeling laws also will enable us to recapture some of our natural market back from the farm fish industry in the future – provided we maintain the healthful superiority of our commercially caught ocean salmon.

But ask yourself these questions: What would happen to those markets (and to consumer confidence in our products) if there is a serious radiological disaster in the Columbia River that contaminates even some of the Hanford Reach and the fall chinook that intermingle with chinook stocks in every Northwest and Alaska fishery? How many consumers would buy commercially caught salmon if there were ANY chance of them being radioactive? How many consumers would risk buying any seafood when there is any chance that it might be tainted with radioactive cesium-137 or strontium-90 at levels that pose a human health risk? And how would such a market disaster in one U.S. fishery affect consumer acceptance in all the others? All this is aside from any actual bans that any number of state or federal agencies might impose on catching contaminated fish to begin with.

Let’s face it. There is little doubt that any verified instance of substantial radioactive contamination in salmon from the Columbia would be catastrophic to consumer acceptance of U.S. seafood in markets all over the world. Even the perception that some U.S. seafood may be unsafe to eat because of radioactivity would be a public relations disaster that could crash our markets for years to come.

Thankfully we are facing no such contamination at the present (no thanks to the Department of Energy). However, the ticking time bomb of large amounts of toxic and sometimes explosive radioactive wastes stored in corroding tanks only a few hundred yards from the Columbia River could change all that nearly overnight.

Long gone are the days when fishermen could just fish. Today we also have to pay serious attention to the habitat our fish live in and depend upon. As that habitat has suffered increasing assaults from industrial pollution, offshore oil development and dewatering of rivers, habitat loss has meant the loss of our business as well. Fishermen must continue to firmly oppose these forces and demanded protection for our fisheries.

Particularly we should demand that the federal government clean up the mess that it made at Hanford. Walking away from its cleanup obligations and making the Upper Columbia a nuclear waste sacrifice zone is not how a responsible government should behave. There are 3 million people downriver from the Hanford nuclear facility, and many industries such as our own. These people, and commercial fishermen, deserve better than to be written off because cleaning up the mess the government made is “too expensive.”

What You Can Do To Protect The Hanford Reach

There are always things you can do to make an impact as an advocate for protection of our fisheries. Also, protecting the Hanford Reach for salmon is truly a no-brainer. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council, for instance, has made strong statements in the past about the need to protect the salmon runs of the Hanford Reach, and many state agencies are also concerned about the health implications of a stalled Hanford cleanup. Here are some simple things you can do:

Educate Yourself: The potential for serious radioactive contamination in the Columbia River is everybody’s concern, and an issue that cuts across all the usual interest groups. Fortunately, thanks to various citizen watchdog groups, there is already a lot of information available on the issue.

Several groups are trying to make sure the Hanford cleanup is real and are working to find solutions. Find out more and connect up with people who have been working on this issue for many years. See the box below for some good places to start.

Contact Your Elected Officials: Not only your members of Congress, but also your local Legislators and local public officials need to know that people care about this issue. Many of them also need to be better educated on the issue, but they will find out more if the people who put them in office express concern. Public officials are elected to protect the public interest and should be much more active on this issue.

Your member of Congress can always be called through the Capital Switchboard at (202)224-3121. Give the operator your Zip Code and you will be plugged in directly to the office staff of the member of Congress representing you. Leave a message with his or her office staff that you are concerned about this issue. These messages have an impact.

Directories of members of Congress and other Congressional information is always available on the web from the Library of Congress’s THOMAS information system at: http://thomas.loc.gov.

You can look up your local officials from your local phone book, and you can find your Legislators from the legislative web sites in your state, or also in the local phone book for your district. When in doubt as to who represents you, contact the local election officials in your county and they will tell you.

Speak Out For Protection: Remember that your voice is important. When commercial fishermen speak out, people listen and often join. Because we are business-based (not to mention persistent and feisty) commercial fishermen can have a real impact in the public debate on these and many other issues that is far out of proportion to their numbers.

Letters to the editor in local or regional newspapers also get read widely. Contact your local newspaper and talk to the Editor in change of that page for more information on how to submit a letter for publication. Find your own forums for talking about this issue in your local community.

Finally, always remember that you are not alone. Many fishermen are speaking out on this issue, and we have already had a real impact. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council itself has said many times how important the Hanford Reach is to our industry. However, that last strong Columbia River salmon run cannot continue to exist if its home river reach is polluted with chemical and nuclear wastes.

Finally, most important of all for salmon fishermen past or future, remember that you are defending your livelihoods – and that it matters! SPEAK UP!

Glen Spain is current Northwest Regional of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), the west coast’s largest organization of commercial fishing families. PCFFA can be reached at: Southwest Regional Office: PO Box 29370, SF, CA USA 94129-0370, (415)561-5080; Northwest Regional Office: PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR USA 97440-3370, (541)689-2000; or by email to: fish1ifr@aol.com. PCFFA’s web site is at: www.pcffa.org.


Government Accountability Project (GAP). GAP protects whistleblowers who have publicly exposed problems at Hanford, and has an excellent web site at: www.whistleblower.org, with links to Hanford information at the bottom. They also produce an email newsletter called “Hanford E-Letter.” To sign up for their free newsletter make the request to: gap@whistleblower.org.

Hanford Watch. This long-standing organization has a good web site at: www.hanfordwatch.org. They also have an excellent free email information and alert system available from that site.

Heart of America Northwest. Another good organization also working on Hanford cleanup. Their web site is at: www.heartofamericanorthwest.org and their office phone number is (206)382-1014. Put yourself on their mailing list as well.

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