Umatillas want to know state of affairs
PORTLAND, Ore. - The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
have joined Oregon and Washington in an intent to sue the Department of
Energy for its management of problems on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
While the DOE is spending megabucks on a cleanup, the agency has not
produced a comprehensive assessment of the environmental harm done to
natural resources during the era in which plutonium was produced.
It's not news to historians that the continental divide is marked by more
than the Rocky Mountains. Eastern capital has reigned on one side since the
founding fathers wrote the Constitution. As for the West? There are the
natural resources and wild open spaces.
It was precisely wide open spaces that promoters of the Manhattan Project
needed in the 1940s to produce plutonium for the nuclear age. In remote
southeastern Washington state, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation found a
home. Sprawled over 375,000 acres (586 square miles), the installation runs
along a 50-mile stretch of the region's major water artery, the Columbia
River. There for more than 40 years without significant public oversight,
radioactive materials were released into the air, the water and the earth.
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is a mere 60 miles as the crow flies from
the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Hanford is also situated within the 6.4
million acres of land the tribe ceded to the United States in the Treaty of
1855. Ceded lands are those on which tribes retain Aboriginal rights to
fish, hunt and gather. Hence the problem for the Umatillas. How clean is
the water and the land and its resources? What is the legacy of the
Manhattan Project for those who live closest to the site of such ambivalent
The United States may have retaliated against the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor and detonated the world's first atomic bombs with technology derived
at Hanford. Indeed, the nation killed a quarter of a million Japanese
people in the twin attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945.
Given the history and its questionable outcome, it's not surprising that
other aspects of the Hanford legacy are also fiercely debated in the public
The Yakama Indian Nation and the states of Washington and Oregon have
already filed similar lawsuits against the DOE's handling of the Hanford
cleanup. The Yakama did so in 2002. The states on the other hand, have only
come on board this past July.
Federal taxpayers may be forking over $2 billion annually to deal with the
177 underground storage tanks of high-level nuclear waste, 2,300 tons of
spent nuclear fuel, 12 tons of plutonium, 25 million cubic feet of solid
waste, and 270 billion gallons of contaminated ground water. But the
states, the Yakamas, and now the Umatillas say a Band-Aid approach to
serious environmental degradation, doesn't cut it.
"My first comment would be that the Department of Energy Secretary, Mr.
Abraham, should visit the Hanford Nuclear Reservation," said Umatilla
tribal Chairman Antone Minthorn. "Usually when there's a new
administration, the department secretary comes out. But after George W.
Bush appointed Mr. Abraham, he never did come out - or acknowledge our
treaty rights and the nation's trust responsibilities."
Member of the Umatilla's governing body, Armand Minthorn, echoed the
chairman's observation. "We have repeatedly sent letters of invitation to
Secretary Abraham, and they have been ignored. Not even acknowledged or
replied to," said Armand Minthorn. "That's a problem because Hanford is the
most contaminated site in the nation. There's radioactive material above
ground and underground that will be there for millions of years. The
tribe's resources are at risk. Our water, salmon, foods, medicines. Even
Because the Bush administration has chosen to disregard the Umatillas and
their concerns, the tribe felt it had no recourse but to file a notice of
intent to sue along with the states and the Yakamas. "Our 60 days started a
few weeks ago," said Chairman Minthorn. "Once the waiting period is up,
we'll see if we've heard from the Department of Energy and then determine
whether we think it best to proceed to court or try and reach some
Armand Minthorn said, "As a federal agency, the Department of Energy has a
trust responsibility to the tribes. It is because of this lack of
acknowledgement, the limiting of the tribes as far as any decision that has
been made. What this amounts to is that we are fighting for a seat at the
decision making table."
While the Yakama Nation has asked for monetary damages, the Umatillas did
not resort to that end. "All we're asking the court to do is order the
Department of Energy to open up the access to environmental harm at
Hanford," said Armand Minthorn. "Once we know the extent of damage on our
treaty resources, we can develop plans to restore the area."
"Maybe back in 1940 or whenever they established Hanford, we didn't have
much of a voice in the matter. But today the situation has changed, and we
have the ability to manage our resources much better than we have in the
past," said Chairman Minthorn. "We got our scientists right here at the
tribe. We have our Department of Science and Engineering. And within this
department we have ground water scientists, toxicologists, zoologists and
chemical engineers. We have the expertise to help the Department of Energy
over there at Hanford. And we want to because this is our home. This is
where we've lived since time immemorial and where we are still planning
ahead for those that will come seven generations from now."