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.
In May, part of a 1950s-era tunnel that had transported rail cars full of radioactive waste collapsed. Officials ordered workers to bury the open tunnel and announced that they had not detected any escaped contamination. But at a June meeting of the Hanford Advisory Board, officials with the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency said future collapses of the tunnels were “imminent.” They planned to cover the tunnels with grout as a temporary protective measure, despite the fact that no one really knows exactly what sort of toxic waste has been sitting for decades inside.
“We’re trying to reconstruct that based on past engineering logs,” EPA Program Manager Dennis Faulk told the board.
Some applauded that plan.
Pam Larsen, executive director of Hanford Communities – an organization that helps local counties and cities coordinate cleanup efforts – worried that a potential 7.5-level earthquake predicted at nearby Rattlesnake Mountain could destabilize miles of contaminated tunnels. She insisted that further testing to determine the exact make up of the waste in the rail cars was unnecessary.
“We need to hurry on the grouting,” Larsen told the board.
Others questioned the wisdom of rushing to take an action that might make long-term cleanup harder at a site that is already littered with forgotten “temporary measures.”
Jean Vanni, board representative for the Yakama Nation, one of four native nations whose sacred sites are part of the national monument, said covering the tunnels with grout would make it harder and more expensive to undertake a permanent fix.
“I have a dreadful feeling that we’re going to end up with a new pile of orphan waste,” Vanni told the board.
The decrepit tunnels are not the only environmental disaster at Hanford. The nuclear site also poisons the groundwater in the center of the national monument. That toxic water is “actively leaking” into the Columbia River, Faulk said. In a recent five-year review of the site, the EPA estimated that groundwater at the monument will remain deadly for between 22 and 180 years.
The massive task of cleaning up 56 million gallons of radioactive liquid waste stored at Hanford would become even harder under President Trump’s proposed budget. The EPA and the Department of Energy told the board that the president’s plan would mean cuts totaling $120 million at Hanford.
That worried officials, who said they are already struggling to keep up with cleanup under the current budget.
“We don’t have enough funding as it is to do the work that needs to be done,” said Randy Bradbury, spokesman for the Washington state Department of Ecology’s Hanford Nuclear Waste program. “So the cuts are very concerning.”
Unlike other monuments under review, no one is clamoring for Hanford’s status to be repealed. At other spots in the West, especially Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, oil, gas and mining industries have a strong desire to privatize public land.
Industrial agriculture is a big economic player in eastern Washington, with apples, cherries and peaches being the main exports. But the toxic groundwater at the nuclear site could turn into a public relations disaster for farmers who want to expand onto new land potentially opened by the government on the former monument.
Most locals want Hanford to remain a national monument, according to Adam Fyall, manager of the Benton County Economic Development Program. Although Fyall says bitter debate surrounded the initial designation as a monument, now the area’s main economic drivers are tourism to its booming wineries and the billions of dollars in government money that goes toward cleaning up the nuclear site.
“It’s not like folks out here were saying, ‘my god, that Hanford National Monument was a travesty – we’ve got to deal with that,’” Fyall said. “The place for that battle was 20 years ago, when the monument was declared. But the community has moved on.”
The best economic use of Hanford now may be to increase tourism. In 2009, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park opened at Hanford, hosting tours of the B Reactor – the world’s first large-scale plutonium reactor. More than 10,000 people toured the B Reactor in 2016, according to Park Service data. Launching boat tours up the Columbia from Richland to the B Reactor could increase those numbers.
“The community adapted to the new conditions and worked with them,” Fyall said. “People want to see more access out there. They want to market the area and sell you hotel beds and gas for your car.”
Today, the few voices for major change in Hanford’s status are those of environmentalists, who argue for the expansion of the monument.
The most toxic site in the Western Hemisphere is also responsible for the surrounding area’s incredible biodiversity. And as the years since the meltdown at Chernobyl have demonstrated, plants, insects and birds can tolerate radioactivity much better than humans can.
The national monument includes parts of the Columbia River that are home to the last wild spawning ground for fall Chinook salmon. Massive herds of elk roam the monument in the spring and fall. Nationally designated as an important bird habitat, Hanford is home to birds that are vanishing in other areas of the West. Sage brush sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow, sage thrasher, Swainson hawks, burrowing owls, and long-billed curlews all thrive at Hanford.
Dozens of bald eagles nest at Hanford in the winter, feasting on decaying salmon carcasses left when the fish succumb to exhaustion after swimming 200 miles up the river from the ocean to mate. Blue heron and great egret rookeries – like feathery apartment complexes – dot the cottonwood trees along the river at Hanford. The birds stand in their nests on long, spindly legs, staring down at the river.
Dana Ward, conservation chairman for the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society, wants the circular monument to gobble up its toxic center.
“Central Hanford has all the same natural resources the monument does,” Ward said. “Actually, the center is even better because it has had fire protection since the 1940s.”
Ward worries all that habitat would be ruined if the monument were stripped of its designation.
No one knows exactly what could happen to Hanford or the 26 other national monuments currently under review. The protected status of a national monument has never been reversed. Would the pristine grassland ecology of Hanford face trampling by the hooves of cattle or be turned into vast fruit orchards?
The president’s power under the Antiquities Act to reverse the status of national monuments is unclear. The Act allows presidents to designate national monuments, but says nothing about reducing their size or eliminating them once they have been designated.
Fyall questions the strategy behind reversing the status of the Hanford Reach National Monument. He wonders whether there is any real goal there at all.
“What is there to gain by disrupting the work that’s already been done here?” Fyall asked. “Not much – other than scoring political points. This administration has shown itself very interested in undoing things that were previously done. But Donald Trump has never articulated some grand public lands strategy.”
Scientists, conservationists, farmers and native tribes are all wondering whether the outcome of this review will be the moment when such a strategy is finally revealed.
Courthouse News has been providing in-depth features on some of the national monuments targeted for closure or reduction by the Trump administration, including the San Gabriel National Monument in California, the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in California and Oregon, and the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. Click here for more CNS coverage on national monuments.