I first learned about Hanford from a movie made by amateur filmmakers. Back in 2007, my friend invited me to an environmental film festival, and we ended up seeing Arid Lands. Through interviews with local people, activists, and scholars, the movie examines the impact of large federal projects on the mid-Columbia Basin. I was fascinated by the film’s portrayal of Hanford and by all the passionate people dedicated to preserving its memory and pushing for a better cleanup.
Since then, I’ve read a lot of about the nuclear weapons complex, gone to public meetings held by the Department of Energy, taught an upper-level Environmental Studies class on Hanford at the University of Oregon three different times, and gotten in touch with a variety of people who are working on Hanford issues. I’m currently writing a doctoral dissertation that examines government rhetoric about Hanford. The government has enormous power over the way the public sees Hanford and that, in turn, has a huge impact on the quality of environmental cleanup and the public’s perception of risk.
A friend of mine is a Hanford Downwinder, and she has been sick her entire life due to the government’s poisoning of the air, water, and soil in southeastern Washington. At one point, my friend told me something that Downwinders often say: “The government is just waiting for us to die. They don’t want us to tell our stories, and they certainly don’t intend to compensate us.” From what I’ve seen of the DOE’s interactions with the public, I can’t help but agree with my friend. It seems that the DOE would like all of us to forget (or never even learn) what happened at Hanford and what is still going on today: a slow-motion disaster that threatens public health and the health of the environment.
Some people find Hanford’s issues overwhelming, but I see them as an opportunity for this generation and the next to make the world a more just and livable place. For me, Hanford’s most compelling issues are those of environmental justice. I’d like to see the U.S. government honor the treaty rights of Native American tribes living in the Hanford area, compensate the people who have been harmed by the site’s pollution, and work more honestly and effectively to prevent future harm.
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