Poisoning the Yakama

Yesterday President Obama held a meeting with the leaders of indigenous people in the U.S. One important issue is the fact that tribal people, because of their subsistence lifestyle, are the most vulnerable group of humans to environmental contaminants.

In 2002, researchers with the Centers for Disease Control reported that tribal people eating fish from the stretch of the Columbia River flowing through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford nuclear weapon production site in eastern Washington had a 1 in 50 risk of dying from radiation-induced cancer between the 1940’s and late 1960’s ? the highest of any group living near this plant.

Along the near-shore, nine nuclear reactors used the river to cool their radioactive cores in order to make plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. During the production period, this stretch of the Columbia, known as the Hanford Reach, was considered the most radioactive stream in the world.

The same year that CDC released its report, the Environmental Protection Agency also came out with a study that found that indigenous people eating fish at the present time from the same stretch of the Columbia have a 1 in 50 risk of dying from cancer due to pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyl’s (PCBs) and heavy metals. Indian children also have a high risk of neurological damage.

For several decades, the Columbia River has been a disposal medium for huge amounts of farming chemicals and toxic dumping by the mining industry. It’s extremely difficult to determine how much of these contaminants are coming from the Hanford site. Normally, the EPA is supposed to take action when a human health risk exceeds 1 in 10,000.

Production at Hanford ended twenty years ago, leaving behind one of the most contaminated zones in the western Hemisphere. Some 400 billion gallons of liquid wastes were dumped into the soil– enough to create a poisonous lake the size of Manhattan Island — 80 feet deep. Enormous groundwater plumes containing radioactive and other hazardous wastes are migrating into the river.

The most immediate threat is from hexavalent chromium, a potent carcinogen, made famous by the movie, Erin Brokovich. Large amounts were used in Hanford’s reactors, and are now creeping into the Chinook salmon spawning beds. Tribal people are extremely dependent on the salmon for subsistence and their economic well being. The Chinook also make up a large portion of the total Pacific salmon harvest.

In 2000, a study by the U.S, Geological Survey found that that juvenile salmon in the Hanford Reach are being seriously harmed by the chromium entering the river. It was heavily criticized by the DOE and effectively squelched. Further research was thwarted after a refrigerator that held samples of salmon tissue at DOE’s Pacific National Laboratory was mysteriously unplugged.

The Yakama Tribe, whose land is occupied by the Hanford site, has repeatedly tried to get the U.S. government to acknowledge this problem. The Hanford site is located on land which the Yakama Nation has ceded rights under the Treaty of 1855. At a meeting with EPA Region 10 officials in 2003, tribal members were told EPA had no money to reduce their risks and that they should be more concerned about pesticide residues on Mexican strawberries.

In exchange for relinquishing their land, the Federal government has a moral and legal trust responsibility to ensure that tribal treaty resources are protected and that the health of tribal people is not being harmed. This trust responsibility is a legal doctrine that has grown out of treaties, statutes, and court decisions. Violation of this trust responsibility has a long, well-documented and tragic history. So far, no attempt by the U.S. government has been made to correct this injustice on the Hanford Reach.

ROBERT ALVAREZ, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary from 1993 to 1999. www.ips-dc.org