I was stunned to learn that President Obama signed a measure in December to establish national parks at three government sites that constituted the infamous Manhattan Project. These are Hanford in Washington state, Los Alamos in New Mexico, and Oak Ridge in Tennessee. The Hanford park will include B Reactor, the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactor that produced plutonium for atomic bombs.
This amounts to glorifying the nuclear bomb race, in which the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, killing 200,000 Japanese civilians and destroying the ecosystem. Scientists wanted to measure the results of radiation. The consequence of this weapon of mass destruction was horrendous for the survivors, who dealt with all kinds of cancer and birth defects.
Now, 70 years later, the prospect of thousands of visitors being encouraged to stroll about Hanford Nuclear Reservation is macabre — and for me, it hits close to home. My brother-in-law, Mario Zavaleta Sr., died in August last year from stomach cancer. He had been a Teamster truck driver who hauled Hanford’s toxic sludge. Mario was the third in his family to die of cancer. My niece, luckily, beat breast cancer after more than 20 surgeries.
Sadly, our story is far from unique. Many living in the Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick and Pasco) in Washington have a relative or friend who has died from cancer. And let’s not forget the area’s Native Americans, who had their land ripped off to create the Manhattan Project and then were exposed to its radiation.
During the 1950s, many current residents moved to the Tri-City area from Mexico and the Southwest to make a better living for themselves. Many found work at Hanford, one of the region’s largest employers. After a stint as a cross-country truck driver, Mario became tired of the extended time away from his family and secured a well-paying union job with benefits at Hanford.
Mario’s family and the other locals, who are primarily Mexican American, are known as “downwinders.” This moniker is used for groups of people living in the path of radioactive emissions from a nuclear plant or bomb test site.
According to the Hanford website of the Washington State Department of Health, “Nearly 2 million individuals were exposed to a total of 237 varying radionuclides released into the air pathway or through the Columbia River pathway from 1944 to 1972.” Along this death mile during this period, an astonishing 100 percent of families who ingested the local water, milk and food experienced maladies such as birth defects, thyroid disorders or deadly cancers.
As the full start-up of cleaning up the inactive nuclear site becomes ever more delayed — currently pushed back to 2039 — the Los Angeles Times recently reported the case of a worker suffering plutonium contamination there. The Times described the 586-square-mile Hanford area as “widely considered the most contaminated place in the country.”
By the time Mario was diagnosed with stomach cancer, it was too late for effective treatment. The cancer spread quickly and Mario suffered along with his family. I spent a couple of months in Kennewick helping care for him. In his last days, my sister Tina told me, his vomit smelled like the toxic waste he moved.
The Department of Energy eventually will provide a monetary settlement to my sister for his death. But nothing can ever make up for the absence of a devoted son, loving husband, father of two daughters and two sons, and grandfather of four. And nothing will make up for losing the best brother-in-law, more like a brother, I could ever have had — one whom I miss every day.
The years of contamination, and the complacency of the DOE in overseeing the program, are nothing short of environmental racism and genocide against the Chicano majority of the area.
Hanford is a massive atrocity. To make it into a grandiose national park is to pretend its past crimes against humanity and mother Earth were insignificant and to give Hanford a pass for its current barbarism. Money should be spent instead to safely clean up the hazardous waste that experts say is leaking more each day. The DOE should take immediate steps to prevent further employee sicknesses and protect the nearby population before anyone else dies. In Washington state, a deadly atomic disaster is occurring — even though no bombs are being dropped.
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