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Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Don't Let DOE Review Itself

June 28, 2005
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By Tom Carpenter, GAP Nuclear Oversight Porgram Director. This editorial also appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  

The Government Accountability Project recently released a report detailing new evidence of contamination in the area around the Hanford nuclear site. New findings included that Columbia River fish and clam samples are contaminated with plutonium, mulberry trees are higher in toxicity than previously thought and radioactive attic dust in the Richland area suggests widespread exposure.

Plutonium content is one of the most troubling findings. The government does not report finding plutonium in fish or clams because, unbelievably, they don’t bother to check. Even more troubling, many individuals, specifically those of the Native American tribes around the Hanford region, are eating these fish, unaware of the potential hazards.

If it seems to you that someone should have been monitoring these contaminants since the get-go and warn unknowing citizens about dangers, you’re right. The Department of Energy and its organizational predecessors have overseen Hanford operations since its inception as a secret plutonium processing plant. Over the years, however, DOE has consistently shown it’s not interested in protecting public health for the people of Washington and Oregon as much as they are in protecting themselves from embarrassing disclosures.

To illustrate this point, just look at DOE behavior over the past five years. An act of Congress was needed to provide health care and financial compensation to workers made ill by radioactive and chemical material exposure, as DOE fights nearly every claim for such illnesses. That’s despite overwhelming medical evidence showing links to cancer. DOE has consistently reneged on its cleanup commitments at Hanford, shrinking the scope of the cleanup program as it announces that it intends to bury tens of thousands of truckloads of waste from other states. Washington state has even been compelled to file lawsuits aimed at forcing DOE to keep the cleanup on schedule.

In keeping with this spirit of offensive behavior, DOE changed its reaction to our report several times over the course of 24 hours. Initially, representatives responded favorably to GAP’s findings, stating they encouraged outside groups to produce independent samplings. This quickly shifted, rather dramatically, to criticizing the report for not being peer-reviewed (an incorrect assertion, as a former Hanford scientist did this). DOE even implied that the plutonium levels in the fish were at acceptable levels. Lastly, DOE attacked GAP as being an anti-nuclear group with a political agenda, pulling the old trick of attacking the messenger.

If being an "anti-nuclear group" means to be concerned about contamination in communities and the food chain, especially when people are not being informed about hazards, so be it. However, our agenda is public safety and accountability. And the people of the Northwest will never receive either one if DOE is in charge of reviewing itself.

There needs to be a credible assessment of just how contaminated the Columbia River has become from Hanford’s past and present emissions, as well as an inventory of the ecological damage, by an independent reviewer. The annual "Hanford State of the Site" meeting produced more than enough examples of individuals whose valid claims seems to be a shock to the Hanford brass, despite these issues coming up year after year.

The people of Washington and Oregon unknowingly sacrificed for their country when the Hanford plant was built, and they continue to suffer today. It is insulting for DOE not to take proactive steps to protect our citizens, much less have to be forced into action. Our congressional representatives should ensure an independent investigation and assessment, providing citizens, tribal members and state agencies with the information they need to protect themselves.

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