This has to be one of the strangest places on earth. The number of contradictions forced to exist together here—the Tri-Cities, the Hanford Site, the Horse Heaven Hills, the Columbia Basin—just boggles the mind.
Nowhere else in this (or any other) state will you find the most urban right next to the most rural, the most toxic below the most natural, the most global squeezed into the heart of the most local, the future we posthumans imagine and desire emerging from the most unimaginable and terrifying prehuman past. On this road over here, American Indians drive past bioinformaticians from India. On that street over there, people who can't stop worrying about how to preserve army secrets (intelligence specialists) drive past people who can't stop worrying about how to preserve the authentic sagebrush ecology (environmental activists). In some parts of the town, ranches; in other parts of the town, complexes for research programs run by the top universities in the world. In some ways, the metropolitan area is more cosmopolitan than Seattle; in other ways, it's much more closed, conservative, and patriotic. Indeed, one of the Tri-Cities, Pasco, which has a decent population —54,000 people, the 16th largest city in the state—is, according to the last United States census, 55 percent Hispanic. English is practically a second language here.
Pasco, packed with a variety of Mexican restaurants, stores, newspapers, and supermarkets, is separated from Kennewick, the largest city of the Tri-Cities, by the mighty Columbia River. A bridge connects the cities. Just west of the bridge is the point where the Yakima River meets the Columbia, and just east of it is where another great river, the Snake River, makes its connection and, fused with the other rivers, turns and flows to the ocean—this part of the Columbia River forms the Oregon/Washington border. Also not far from the bridge is the very place where Kennewick Man ("the Ancient One") was found in 1996. It happened in the middle of summer, during the hyperpatriotic hydroplane races. Out of the many people who came to watch the monsters of human engineering—the hydroplanes exploding river water far into the air, the helicopters hovering over the water, the jet planes roaring across the sky—two men happened to find a skull in a shallow part of the river that's pooled behind McNary Dam. According to HistoryLink.org, one of the two young men first thought it was a big rock and put his foot on it. The discovery was immediately reported to the authorities, who found more bones and decided to turn them over to an expert, Dr. James C. Chatters. In his short essay "Kennewick Man," Dr. Chatters explains that because the skull was Caucasoid, he thought it belonged to a man (a settler) who died somewhere in the 19th century. But when the bones were subjected to radiocarbon dating, it was revealed that the man had died in the land before time, more than 9,000 years ago.
Just north of this prehistoric burial site is the tomorrowland of clean energy—Nine Canyon Wind Project. You can see it from almost any part of Kennewick, the rows of giant wind turbines (63 in all) in an area that leads to Horse Heaven Hills. The wind blows from the west, the blades turn and turn, and occasionally a bat is struck and killed. As the excellent, long, and very dry (as dry as this part of the world) research paper "Nine Canyon Wind Power Project Avian and Bat Monitoring Report" points out, not only bats (the silver-haired bat, the hoary bat) but a number of birds (the short-eared owl, the great blue heron, the European starling) have had their lives cut short by these future machines. No good comes without its evil—that is the nature of a universe that has no designer but is a random emergence of particles, effects, patterns, intensities, speeds, and contrasts.
From the hill, you can see the three cities (the smallest of which is Richland), the three rivers, and the toxic nuclear wasteland called Hanford. Up here, we have the dream of tomorrowland; down there, down by Richland, down by the riverside, we have the nightmare of The Day After.
I n December 1941, the leaders of the Manhattan Project needed a place on earth to produce weapons-grade plutonium. That place had to be in America and in a remote part of America. The location needed to have an abundance of water, power, and nothingness. Hanford proved to be this place. It had lots of water (the Columbia River), lots of power (hydroelectricity from the dams), and nothingness (desert, treeless hills, and shrubs). Construction started in 1943, and by 1945, three reactors were producing plutonium for nuclear weapons, one of which, "Fat Man," was dropped on Nagasaki, vaporizing 40,000 people on the spot. Time passed and seven more reactors were built along the river. The water was used to cool the hot reactors—clean water went in and radioactive water went out, back into the Columbia River—and a tremendous amount of waste was simply pumped directly into the ground, into the nothingness.
After three years of pumping toxic waste into the soil, resulting in a radioactive swamp (as described in Michele Gerber's Legend and Legacy: Fifty Years of Defense Production at the Hanford Site), the people at Hanford decided to store the waste in massive tanks. About 50 percent of the 54 million gallons of waste in Hanford is contained in 177 tanks, some of which have leaked, or are currently leaking, or are about to start leaking. The scale of the cleanup, which began in the mid-1990s and will not end until the middle of this century, has no match in the industrial history of the United States.
At the heart of the cleanup plan is vitrification, the conversion of liquid waste into glass logs. So in the way that the forests of the Northwest have produced an industry of tree logs, the massive vitrification plant, which is currently under construction, will produce an industry of radioactive glass logs. (According to an October 2009 Seattle Times story, the plant is 50 percent done and will be completed in 2019.) With such a slow cleanup process, one would expect all life in the Hanford area to be wiped out by radiation, but such is not the case. Indeed, the opposite might be true: the slower the cleanup, the better for the wildlife in and around Hanford.
Not long ago, site employees found a number of radioactive wasps that had made their nests with radioactive mud. "Workers excavating radioactive contamination at the Hanford Site in Washington... have been finding thousands of radioactive wasp nests, spawning a blizzard of atomic stingers," reported io9.com last June. There are also radioactive rabbit droppings. In October 2009, the New York Times reported that a government contractor "spent a week mapping radioactive rabbit feces with detectors mounted on a helicopter flying 50 feet over the desert scrub." This was in an area "that had never been used by the bomb makers," but it was inhabited by rabbits that consumed salts in contaminated areas. "The rabbits carried strontium and cesium, which emit gamma rays, back out of the area in their digestive tracts."
In Arid Lands, a long and informative documentary that concerns the complicated core of the Columbia Basin, one of the two interviewed geography professors, Morris Uebelacker, explains a realization he had while surveying a transmission line that runs across Hanford. He was outside, under the sun, looking at the active landscape, when it suddenly occurred to him that because the area is so toxic, because humans refused to have anything to do with a place that's packed with millions upon millions of gallons of radioactive waste, the old nature, the original nature, the nature before even manifest destiny, had made a spectacular return. The toxic waste did not kill the shrub-steppe ecosystem, but instead brought it back from the depths of time. Uebelacker calls this recent and bizarre contradiction "the irony of the landscape."
Uebelacker is not the only person to see this irony. David Fishlock, the recently deceased science editor of the Financial Times, composed a similar picture of Hanford in a New Scientist article titled "The Dirtiest Place on Earth": "Dimly in the distance, the Columbia River arcs gracefully across a wilderness of grey sand and sagebrush. Outwardly, the scene could not be more tranquil. Rattlesnakes stay out of sight. Elk, deer, coyote, and rabbits abound. Yet beneath this wilderness in the southeastern corner of Washington State seethes one of the world's great environmental challenges: a vast potpourri of chemical unpleasantness. Cauldrons of highly radioactive soup bump and burp, belching flammable gases. Subterranean plumes of carbon tetrachloride, chromium salts, radionuclides, and other poisons inch their way through the soil towards the Columbia River. A full tonne of plutonium may be lying under the sand, buried among thousands of tonnes of solid wastes." An environmental heaven above, a toxic hell below; life above, death below; orderly nature above, a human catastrophe below.
This place is still dangerous, but evidently not dangerous enough for wildlife. What's more dangerous for animals than radioactive waste left by humans? Humans themselves. This is the real horror. Despite all of the radioactive waste out there (over 50 million gallons of it), it's not as toxic to animal life as humans are. Nature can deal with the externalities of plutonium production, but it cannot deal with humans and their ceaseless activities, their unending desires, their golf courses, wineries, boat races, multiplexes, giant hotels, thirsty lawns, and so on and so on. There are many terrifying things, and yet nothing is more terrifying than man.
B ecause Hanford has been returned to the forces of nature, the area certainly feels ancient, and has about it the silence of the ancient. But the prelapsarian spell is here and there broken by large geometric structures (domes, boxes, tubes). These are buildings for the Energy Northwest Columbia Generating Station (it's the state's only commercially operated nuclear power plant), the slumbering Fast Flux Test Facility (it's in a state of "cold standby," according to GlobalSecurity.org), and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (the Caltech/MIT project uses lasers to detect, among other things, tiny gravity ripples from the deepest part of cosmic history, the birth of our universe, which is now expanding at a speed that's faster than light and might be one of many other expanding universes). The reactors that once produced weapons-grade plutonium are farther into Hanford and not accessible to casual visitors (the tours only happen during the summer). But one does not need to pass the Wye Barricade, one of three entrances to the reactors, to know that the terrain in the heart of Hanford is no different than the terrain that separates it from the cities at the base of Horse Heaven Hills.
The stark structures and the giant towers that link transmission lines seem to be not of this world of water-starved shrubs, dry rocks, and slow reptiles, but projected onto the landscape from another future, a failed future—the atomic age's vision of the time it never made it to, the time we are now in, the time that sees it as junk. Another way of seeing it, which is less historical and more cosmic, is as if some hole or fold in the fabric of time had produced in this area the simultaneous existence of two entirely unrelated periods in the earth's history—one that is all nature and no humans and one that is all humans and no nature.
Though wild animals thrive and do the whole Circle of Life thing here, they are not for the untrained eyes as easy to see as the numerous reflective, bright green leaping-deer signs on the side of the road—indeed, you are far more likely to run into a sign than into an actual animal. Because there are so many strange things in Hanford, because of the timelessness of the terrain, one would not be surprised to see a bright green sign for a mammoth. Nor would one be surprised to actually see a herd of those monsters crossing the road, heading toward waters by one of the dead reactors in the distance.
In the distance is the dramatic face of Rattlesnake Mountain. It forms Hanford's southwestern boundary, is 3,600 feet high and treeless, and is one of the few mountains in the region that was not inundated by the great Missoula floods that happened only a few thousand years before the Ancient One was laid to rest beside the river. At the end of the Ice Age, the Hanford area was completely underwater, and the only piece of dry land for miles around was the top of Rattlesnake. At the end of the 20th century, a considerable telescope was built on the summit of the mountain, and humans enlarged and examined light that had arrived from inhumanly distant stars. Some of these stars, the factories of the heavy elements that make life possible in this particular universe, were extinct by the time their light hit the mirrors in the telescope. So huge and so god-belittling is cold, deep space.
The summit of Rattlesnake is not only the home for UFO sightings and speculations about secret military bases, it is also the home of some of the strongest winds in the region. The U.S. Department of Energy's website states that the meteorology equipment on the hill has recorded 150 mile per hour winds. Those winds are no laughing matter. They blow massive clouds of dust across the region and bring all life to a dangerous standstill. Alison Schwerzler—a linguist who moved to the area two years ago from Seattle, currently lives near the east entrance of Hanford (she drives by it twice a day), and is writing a memoir concerning her experiences of the region of contradictions—has this to say about the windstorms: "Living in a city is easier. I never had to drive through a dust storm that completely obscured miles of road before, not knowing if an apple truck is going 35 in front of me or if a pickup truck is coming up behind me at 80."
During the peak of Hanford's plutonium production, the windstorms were even worse because construction work had removed a good amount of the shrubbery that covered and contained the desert floor. When the winds came down from the mountain, they would become a great radioactive cloud that crossed the desert and reached and poisoned humans in nearby farms and towns. The poisoning was not immediate but gradual, and not always just accidentally carried by dust but also directly and secretly released into the atmosphere by scientists. And the radiation would fall, cover the ground, enter plants that were eaten by the cows, and enter the cows' milk that was consumed by humans—you are not only what you eat, but also what what you eat eats.
Some of the people who drank this poisonous milk or swallowed the dangerous dust were transformed into a race called downwinders. This race of humans is very familiar with two institutions: the hospital and the court. They go to the former for the treatment of cancers, sterility, birth defects, and genetic mutations; they go to the latter to struggle for some justice and recognition from the source of their suffering, the United States government.
E ast of Richland, there is a strange island. It's on the Columbia River and connected to the mainland by a slim land bridge. For much of its recent history, Clover Island was used as a dump site for construction waste and concrete. During this period, which came to an end around the 1970s, a cloud of dust would often rise from the island and hang over the river. Today, the island is being redeveloped into a consumer paradise. Clover Island already has a yacht club, a hotel, a fancy restaurant, and a marina. The developers want to pack more businesses and recreational facilities onto the island and the shoreline it faces to the south.
"The vision for this area includes an IMAX theater, a gondola, a carousel, restaurants, a public plaza, pathways, and riverfront restaurants and buildings with a mix of commercial, retail, and residential overlooking an existing urban wildlife area," wrote John Fetterolf, the Pasco branch manager for HDJ Design Group, in the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.
On the day I visited the island, it was practically empty. There were no other cars there but my own and one owned by a couple I was visiting, Matt and Melissa. They live in Kennewick and work at the community college in Pasco. Both are in the humanities, both are in their late 30s, and both have complicated views about the area.
We were drinking local wine in the only open restaurant on the island, Cedars. I asked about the downwinders.
"There is a dull apathy about safety at Hanford," said Matt. "But you have to remember that this county, Benton, and its neighbors are overwhelmingly, single-mindedly conservative and thus inclined to discount environmental concerns as liberal fearmongering. I believe that the citizens of this area, for the most part, have simply forgotten that what lives upriver has really nasty teeth."
"Are you worried about your own health?" I asked, looking at him and then the moving water flowing by, flowing to the ocean, flowing to the mighty mother of us all.
"Yes, but still. It's hard to explain. There are a lot of things we just don't know. For example, there is a train that I can hear from our house. It does not merely move at night; it crawls during daylight hours, too. A short train, traveling at a low rate of speed." Is it carrying toxic waste? "For all I know, it carries overripe potatoes."
"Have you visited Hanford?" I asked.
"Yeah, they have tours in the summer. People can go all the way to the reactors. We took the tour last year. It was very strange." (The tours, which are five hours long and free, began last week but are already booked through the rest of the year. To sign up next year: www.hanford.gov.)
"I remember we were allowed to see a current excavation site," said Melissa. "The speaker told us that there are layers of buried waste, some of it from the earliest days of the program, and the layers reminded me of a dinosaur fossil site, with various strata showing the project's time line."
The growing population of the Tri-Cities feeds on that waste—the two or so billion dollars the federal government pumps yearly into the economy for the ever-so-slow cleanup project. This politically conservative area thrives on welfare. And the cleanup, by the way, will ultimately make the land attractive to developers and farmers—therefore, as with Clover Island, replacing one poison (industrial waste) with an even worse poison (human beings). And what contradiction surpasses this one? The most rational animal in the area is the most toxic animal.
This story has been updated since its original publication.