Hanford Reach: In The Atomic Field > Oral Histories

I was raised back and forth to Eastern Washington; my parents were born in Eastern Washington. And through their lives, they tried to leave… But they would move back to Eastern Washington, because that’s where my dad made the most money and got the most reliable job. And that was as a weapons designer and nuclear engineer, through Hanford.

At that time Hanford was still considered top-secret, and in the '70s, it was considered one of the governments largest top-secret files. And there was this stigma there that you didn’t talk to your neighbor about anything that mattered, and certainly not about work, certainly not about Hanford. And if you did, you would lose your job and not be hired back, and maybe not be able to find another job in any other field, there. So it led to a very secluded lifestyle. My memories are of my mother being really frustrated. Life wasn't what she'd thought it was going to be. She thought it was going to be parties, and neighbors... Not this secrecy, and this weird shame. She wanted to be proud of what my dad did, and he wasn't. He didn't want to talk about it.

It got to the point where he wanted to take a vacation and they wouldn't give him his passport. He knew too much about nuclear design, and it was considered a threat to go other places.

Eventually in the late seventies when the Tri-Party agreement happened and files were opened about how dangerous it really was at Hanford, my dad said he was done; he quit. We left Tri-Cities, I believe, in '81. And my parents talk about how they couldn’t sell their house because Tri-Cities had become a ghost town by the '80s. Because of the Tri-Party Agreement, because of the understanding of the Green Run: that was the first time they had to admit they had consciously poisoned people to track radiation.

My understanding of the Green Run is they wanted to see the wind patterns around Hanford. So they released radiation into the air and supposedly this was all very safe radiation: short shelf lives. It couldn’t have harmed anyone, is what they tell you now. They released this radiation into the wind to track where it was going, so they could research the wind patterns. What happened was there were a lot of people who died of cancer, and a lot of people lived until their forties, and then got cancer.



I often have felt that my dad was more sane than most people, and that what he had to say was true, came true, in many situations of my life. But in the '70s, because of financial burdens, because of not knowing what he was going to do with his family, and the responsibility for him... My dad went back to his parents' farm which was in Wapato Washington and helped my grandpa farm; he just kind of fell out of society at that point in his life. He really couldn’t cope anymore.



So we moved to Benton City, and we lived on the river; we had a little farm. One day we were coming home about three ’o clock in the afternoon, and there was this cloud over Horn Rapids Area that was a strange red. It was like the cloud that you would see at sunset, but it was six hours before sunset; it didn’t equal to the sun. And we were trying to figure out, is this a reflection of the river on the cloud? What would make the clouds so bizarre looking?

About two days later I had to go up to Othello, so I took 97 again. And I started to notice spray-painted sagebrushes. I came home to my sister and said, “What the heck are all those sagebrushes, all spray painted, out on the Area?” My sister said, “Well, probably they went out there with their Geigers and saw that they’re radioactive, so they spray-painted ’em orange.”

On my way home, all of Hanford was on fire. There was this huge fire; they said it was these wild lightning storms... And there was all this concern about the fire being so close to the tanks, and fire fire fire… Meanwhile I'm commuting back and forth on 97, and breathing all of this ash. There was a point where there was zero visibility on the road, it was so heavy in ash… And these sagebrushes, they’re rolling over the roof of my car, and I’m seeing that they’re spray painted orange…

And the paper says: “There was a little leak. Everything is safe. We couldn’t measure the leak, because by the time they came to measure it, it was all on fire.”

So this is when I really started thinking about the reality that I grew up in, and the reality of where I was living. Everywhere outside my house was telling me everything was fine, everything was safe, everything was under control. But as a farmer, and a scientist, and a lover of media: none of this makes sense.



They call Hanford Reserve a reserve “wildlife reserve.” They have wild animals; they have rabbits, eagles, elk... At this time, I didn't yet realize the history of Hanford. I didn’t realize that up until the '60s they had open trenches, open cooling waters. I learned from my dad that it was all accessible. So I started thinking about the mosquitoes, I started thinking about the ants… I only lived ten miles from the Hanford border; how far does it take for a rabbit to go; how many generations of ants…

And I started to think of all these things, and think about when I was stung. The week that we moved from Tri-Cities I had the truck window open, and a wasp flew in and stung me right above my heart...

Then, I did find an article about Hanford where they had scrapped a bunch of the railroads: the railroad metals. And they said, “We’ve tested a bunch of these metals and rest assured, the metal on these railroads was safe, however (they were) infested with radioactive mud wasps…

And I started to realize that really, the properties that you would call downwind... northeast: Othello, through Spokane and then Walla Walla, that span... Supposedly it’s prominently blowing that way: north, and southeast... If you were to ask me, I would tell you that the wind blew all over the place. I mean... The wind blows forty miles, all over the place... But: we’ll just say that it's going in this direction that they say is downwind. You start to realize that what is prominently in these areas is potato farms. And they're extremely absorbent of minerals. So: potassium, cesium… a potato’s not going to know the difference. What a wonderful idea, to take this contaminated area, and fill it full of this produce, let this produce grow, and filter your soil!

I started wondering, “Who’s buying these potatoes? Where are these potatoes going?” I found out that the largest producer of McDonald's French fries is Lamb Weston, who grows the most French fries in the world, more than Idaho. Like fifty million tons of potatoes, in Eastern Washington, around Hanford. And those are going to McDonald's, and we’re shipping those all over the world! And everybody’s eating those French Fries!

And so it goes back to that “The Solution to Pollution is Dilution:” if we spread it all over the place, then you can’t figure out where it came from, and you can’t hold us liable.



It came to me that this was my inheritance, and this is what my family gave to me, and that it was poisonous. Because you have that pride: “This is where my parents lived; my parent’s parents. We lived here for ever and ever, this is our land, look how beautiful it is, and I want to give that to my kids." But then there was this reality, there was this invisible poison that had been permeating that desert for fifty years, or sixty years.

That was when I was starting to see that everything had the potential of being poisonous. I finally was taught that there is a Nuclear Regulation Commission; [it] had reports from nuke structures to say when there was a problem, and they would file [a] report. So we got on to Hanford’s... It would come up and say: "Hanford Sensor on Air Quality, etc: Out." It was like that every month, these sensors weren’t working. They would blame all kinds of things. They would blame the filter, they would blame the electrical supply. But when you started to pay attention you started to see that no, really: those sensors don't work.



There were all these birth defects around Hanford: babies being born without brains, without skulls. And there are all these incoming migrant working moms, so they're blaming them. “They weren’t taking their vitamins…” And the other coincidence is most all of them, they are on well water. They’re all in different counties; they’re all around. So: “Well, they don’t live downwind."

In the '50s and '60s, farmers were dying. And they didn't really know what it was. It became not cool to work in the fields. You got field workers. And the fieldworkers you could employ happened to be Mexican. And for whatever reasons, if you look at Eastern Washington, the immigration levels are as high, if not higher, than Arizona. Those people traveled through states to get there.

And the conditions were not good. My grandparents had a farm, and they had a two bedroom house that housed probably twenty-five people from Mexico, employees, in this crappy little house that didn’t even have a bathroom. It wasn’t until the '70s or maybe even the '80s that they started regulating how the farmworkers were treated. So these farmworkers are stuck out there; the farm workers are spraying... And the thing is, they go back home. So if they are sick or have a sick baby, there’s no way of tracing it back to know: where did they get sick? It is very true that the migrant workers were in the fields, and out in the air, and drinking the well waters. And then they migrate to wherever else they’re going, because they can’t live there, it’s not sustainable… And maybe came back next year, or maybe, some other farm somewhere else…

When they came to test our farm to give us our certification I asked them, “Well, what about the river water we’re irrigating with, what about this air?” And they said, “We can’t expect you to control your neighbors.” And so I lost faith in organic farming. I can go a foot, two feet away from Hanford, start the largest potato farm in the world, cause it’s the cheapest acreage you can get in America, and then sell to McDonald's.



They’re very proud of it. The culture was that they saved the war: they saved the world from Hitler. Had we not dropped the bomb on Japan, we would all be communists… But then they’ve also saved the world because of affordable energy. They’ll tell you, "Don’t worry about the waste, we’re learning to recycle the waste, there won’t be any problems, everything’s fine."

So it starts in the '50s. They’re being educated, and they’re learning the science to help the world. And in the '60s, the Tri- Cities is well funded. When you look at the people working there in the '60s: they’re making good money. The houses are huge. This is a nice lifestyle, the schools are nice, the libraries are nice. For rural America, this is a really nice area.

Then in the '70s, you start hearing about scientists who disappear, you start hearing about the tank farms, you start hearing about these weird things: the Green Run, and people dying. In the '70s, something happened on a global scale… There was this shift to be "environmental." And so now you moved to the Tri-Cities because you still are a nuclear scientist, you still want that big income, but now you’re there to clean it up. Now you’re there to fix it: to learn from those mistakes… And make medicine… And x rays… You know it still stays this noble job! It always was this noble person, that works at Hanford.



So I go into the Want Ads, and ninety-five percent of the jobs are at the Area. Hanford is referred to as “the Area.” And it’s also known as “the Farms,” because of the tank farms. So there’s a lot of, like, make you think you’re out in the fields working, when really you're in the Area.

I'm looking for a job, feeling like I’m crazy and I just need to get rid of my ethics: just suck it up and go out to the Area and get a job because that's where I'm gonna get the benefits, the pay, and that’s what everyone else does so I just need to shut up and go to work. So I see that Lockheed Martin was hiring a “media specialist,” and, “Oh! This is meant for me!” And I had several interviews, and turned in my portfolio, and they told me “Your job is going to be to go to kiosks and make videos, kiosks for people to go in watch videos about the history, and how great Hanford is.” And I thought to myself, you know: "That’s a challenge!" I was up for it... I was starving.

So I just about to get this job, and they say: “We just have to do this FBI background check…” You can’t survive there, it you’re not playing their game. And if you can't work, you can’t pay bills, you’re not going to stay there…

A lot of the people who live in Tri-Cities are veterans; they're very pro-American. Those are the ones who get the jobs at Hanford, veterans. They’re picked to be unquestioning, to be trusting. Their families are used to secrecy; that's how they operate. If you want a job, you better not say anything. They don’t want someone who is a loose cannon.

And it's a lot easier to talk about Hanford in California; it's also a lot easier to talk about Hanford in Japan…



In February, there was this really weird, they called it a “milky rain,” that came over Tri-Cities. With the spectrometer, they took samples of this milky rain, and the spectrometer came back that it was just ash. In the Tri-Cities, they downplayed it like it was nothing. Eventually they came out and said, “Oh well… there was this volcano that exploded across the world, around the stratosphere, and it just dropped right on Tri-Cities.”

Right after Valentine's Day, my step-dad, who was an avid walker, he got pneumonia really quickly. He checked himself into the hospital and the very next day he was on life support. And they said he had a vigorous infection that they couldn’t identify. Within a couple days of being on life support, he passed away. He started having heart failure, and he died.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the “milky rain”… And him being out in that milky rain… And what that meant…

It's so hard to grieve someone, and fight the source of everything you know that's telling you everything's okay. “This was just volcanic ash, don’t worry about it.” And I was already upset
because of the ash, driving through the ash of that big fire; starting to suspect the ash. I was suspecting this ash, when he passed.



There was an infestation of Starlings at Hanford, and they did this mass poisoning; the birds just dropped from the sky. There is a lot of history of them poisoning the Starlings. In Walla Walla they did the same thing, they said that there were too many, so they just poisoned them. They say it was to save the crops. There are huge grasshoppers that live all over the deserts of Eastern Washington. So let’s just say the grasshoppers are contaminated. The Starlings could be eating the grasshoppers, and then going into apple orchards, cherry orchards…

It’s in the middle of what they call “nowhere,” but it's not the middle of nowhere. People live ten miles away... There’s a drift, and there’s a river, the seventh largest river in the United States. The Columbia River, it was dammed in the '50s and '60s, so I can only imagine what the bottom of those dams are holding. The sturgeon: some have lived in the river for seventy-plus years.

And the railway: it would go from Spokane, the uranium mine, through Othello, down into Hanford. And so anywhere that dust from those trains went... You’ll see a pattern of people dying. To the point where that town pretty much has nobody in it that has lived there… Certainly, their family has been touched by cancer. But most of that town is completely migratory, and unknowing as to what is going on, on the other side of what they call Radar Hill.



And in the '70s, Radar Hill was that hill in between Hanford and Othello where there was an air force base. And it was put there to protect, in case there was an attack on Hanford: the planes could take off.

There’s a lot of talk about the hills around Hanford. There’s talk about Rattlesnake Hill having a complete arsenal underground… And trains that go into the hill... And if you look at the top of that hill, you’ll see squares that are level. And they say that those doors would open up; that they could’ve shot things out…

You’ve got to figure, this was a volatile place they were protecting, so of course there’s going to be systems of defense around it. And so the conversation could be that there are systems of waste: they’re putting waste in the hill. The conversation could be that it’s storage… No one really knows. And that’s the thing with these tanks: they put waste in them that was never recorded. So every tank has a different gallon of waste, because of how it was mixed.

We crashed this dinner party with the DOE, and in it this scientist was telling me that there was a school bus in one of the tanks, because it had gotten contaminated. They have an entire school bus in a tank. They talked about animals, and doing scientific experiments on animals, and them being thrown into the tanks… There’s been bar stories where I’ve been told that there are living, alligator, creatures in these tanks… Who’s to know?

I did interview for a job to run remote cameras: they are taking cameras, and sticking them in the tanks, to get pictures. And I saw some of the pictures they took inside these tanks. And it looks like salt. The entire top of this tank looks like salt, or potassium…

And it made me think about fertilizer; if you were to have open trenches, and it turned salty on the crust, and you were to test its molecular build, and it came out potassium: what a great fertilizer! You could spread it all around… and grow great big potatoes!