RICHLAND, Wash. (CN) – An ecological jewel rings the most toxic spot in the nation – which President Donald Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke may strip of its protection as a national monument.
The vast, grassy plains of southeastern Washington hold some of the most biodiverse shrub steppe habitat west of the Rocky Mountains. Protected from human activity for three quarters of a century, the Hanford Reach National Monument is home to thriving communities of plants and insects that have never been found elsewhere. At its center stands the reason for its preservation: the radioactive legacy of the nuclear arms race.
In 1943, the government chose a remote spot nestled in an elbow of the Columbia River as the site for its top secret Hanford Engineer Works. There, workers produced the plutonium that fueled the first nuclear bomb. Later, they refined the plutonium used to power the bomb that killed 75,000 people moments after it was dropped on Nagasaki.
In the early years at Hanford, secrecy was so absolute that workers there had no idea what their efforts were creating. It wasn’t until the atomic bombing of Hiroshima that they found out exactly how they were contributing to the war effort.
To keep its secret, the government set up a 900-square mile buffer zone around Hanford and banned trespassing there. Land inside that buffer was never opened for industrial or agricultural use. In 2000, then-president Bill Clinton designated the Hanford Reach National Monument, mostly following the same boundaries that once delineated the buffer zone.
Seventy-four years after plutonium production was complete, that secrecy has had another effect. Farming and ranching has radically transformed vast swaths of the West. But not Hanford. The buffers allowed the native species that have suffered sharp declines elsewhere in the West to proliferate there without interference.
Today, biologists at Hanford Reach National Monument are scrambling to document native species that are brand new to science. The area is particularly rich in the plants and insects that indicate the health of an ecosystem and form the basis of the food chain. Dozens of new insects have already been discovered at the monument. And scientists are now working to catalog new species of spiders found there. Grasses and wildflowers grow there that exist nowhere else.
But groundwater at the Hanford Nuclear Site in the center of the monument will retain its deadly toxicity for decades, perhaps centuries, according to a recent review by the EPA. The relationship between the monument and the nuclear site is a study in contradictions.
In April, President Donald Trump added another wrinkle to the site’s complicated legacy with an executive order that threatens the area’s protected status. Trump instructed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review the status of all national monuments designated since 1996 that are larger than 100,000 acres – 27 in all, or nearly one quarter of the nation’s monuments.
Problems with the containment of the millions of gallons of nuclear waste plague the shuttered Hanford nuclear site. Mandates under the site’s Superfund designation require the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor cleanup efforts to make sure they are properly “protective” – meaning that radioactive waste must be kept away from the public, not that it is actually cleaned up.