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Reclaiming Hanford
Summer 1995, vol. 8(2)

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*  Reclaiming Hanford

(photo) Students learn to survey a site.

"The experts told Fort Frederica staffers that 4th and 5th graders were too young to learn the complexities of archeology. They were wrong."

Ray Morris

by Darby C. Stapp, Joy K. Woodruff, and Thomas E. Marceau

At first glance, Hanford, Washington, appears to be a sterile wasteland—an industrial complex of nuclear reactors, chemical separation plants, and toxic dump sites surrounded by a sea of sagebrush. When viewed from a preservation perspective, however, it comes alive as one of the richest cultural and historical sites in the Pacific Northwest, if not the western United States. Perhaps more than anything else, this legacy symbolizes the challenges that people here have faced for millennia. Today, the challenge to the current resident, the Department of Energy, is to clean up after 45 years of manufacturing and processing nuclear materials, which has transformed Hanford into one of the most contaminated federal sites in the country.

To the cultural resources staff of DOE's environmental restoration program, the challenge is to preserve Hanford's heritage as the cleanup of over 500 contaminated areas proceeds. With public demand for less government spending and politicians calling for less regulation, it is clear that we cannot do the job in the 1990s as we did in the 1980s and 1970s. New approaches are needed. Nowhere is that more evident than here.

Hanford encompasses approximately 560 semi-arid square miles in southeastern Washington state, roughly half the size of Rhode Island. The site is in the Hanford Reach, the only stretch of the Columbia River not flooded by hydroelectric dams. Rising from the generally flat landscape are a series of ridges, hills, and mountains—vestiges of 15,000-foot-thick basalt flows deposited 17 to 15.5 million years ago. Cataclysmic floods during the last glacial period, 20,000 to 11,000 years ago, shaped the terrain, which alternates between gravelly terraces, stabilized dunes, and sands that shift with the strong winds.

With sweltering summer temperatures routinely exceeding 100o and vegetation that appears mundane, it is not surprising that first-time visitors wonder how anyone could live here. But as the cultural record indicates, people have done so successfully for thousands of years.

The few archeological excavations to date reveal a more-or-less continuous occupation beginning around 10,000 years ago. Archeological remains of villages and areas for fishing, hunting, and other uses abound along the river, with a prehistoric economy based largely on deer, salmon, plants, and shellfish.

Around 4,500 years ago, precipitation increased, creating a more productive environment. Pithouses began to appear, suggesting a shift from foraging to more permanent settlement. About 2,200 years ago, however, the climate dried out and food resources dwindled. To survive, the people had to either intensify food gathering locally or travel to more distant territories. They did both, leading to what archeologist Jim Chatters calls "a virtual revolution" in mobility and demography.1 By about 1,500 years ago, clusters of pithouses and fishing camps lined the river, with hunting and root camps spread across the landscape.

Although the horse, introduced over two centuries ago, enhanced trade with other regions, the arrival of Euroamericans in about 1800 was accompanied by the spread of disease and loss of access to land and resources. This quickly led to a period of cultural devolution, which only recently appears to have ended.

Because the Reach avoided dam flooding, Hanford boasts the best preserved archeological record of the river's prehistory. Moreover, the security afforded by 50 years of government control has protected sites from collectors and developers (although there has been looting of the river's shore and islands).

The significance of these sites goes beyond science. The descendants of the prehistoric peoples are still here, and deeply interested in Hanford's legacy. The Wanapum Tribe, whose ancestors are buried where they lived at Hanford, now resides 15 miles upriver at Priest Rapids. Although the Wanapum never signed a treaty with the U.S. government, the DOE involves them in decisions affecting Hanford lands. Two other native groups—the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation—are also consulted, because Hanford is on lands they ceded to the U.S. government. The Nez Perce are included in decisions as well, because they retain rights arising from the Walla Walla Treaty of 1855.

To the region's Native Americans, cultural resources are sacred connections from the past to the present and future. They want them preserved and protected.

"The Gettysburg of the Cold War"

In 1943, when the government took the land for the war effort, about 1,500 people had to move. Most were Euroamerican families who came early in the century to start farms and orchards in what seemed like rich agricultural territory. Although the sandy soils and arid environment limited their success, many adapted and by 1940 nearly a thousand people lived in the communities of Hanford and White Bluffs.

The government, after purchasing the property, gave residents as few as 30 days to leave their farms, homes, and businesses, which were soon bulldozed. The foundations, however, survived relatively intact and today the site is dotted with hundreds of Pompeii-like structures reflecting life in rural America during the early 20th century.

The plutonium project faced major uncertainties from the beginning, as historian Michele Gerber documents in On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site.2 How to cool the reactors, how to perform complex chemical separations, how to maintain health and safety—all were unknowns. Nevertheless, Hanford kept moving forward, driven by commanding general Leslie Groves' philosophy that "nothing would be more fatal to success than to try to arrive at a perfect plan before taking any important step."3

The Hanford B Reactor produced the plutonium for the Trinity test at Alamogordo, New Mexico—the world's first atomic explosion—on July 16, 1945. On August 9, an atomic bomb containing plutonium from the reactor was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Five days later, the Japanese surrendered, and World War II was over.

Regardless of one's opinion of the bombing, the fact that the United States built the world's first full-scale nuclear reactor and produced the plutonium in about a year's time is one of the greatest scientific and engineering feats of the modern era. Over the decades, more reactors and processing facilities were constructed as Hanford joined the fight for nuclear superiority against the Soviet Union. "Hanford is the quintessential Cold War site," says David Nicandri, director of the Washington State Historical Society, who dubbed it "the Gettysburg of the Cold War."4

Stopping a Showstopper

Today, the plutonium complex is shut down, and the task has turned to cleanup. Much of the waste is along the Columbia, where nine reactors once operated and where most of the cultural resources reside. There are about 50 dump sites in each reactor area, with waste trenches for clothing, tools, and other refuse contaminated with low levels of radioactivity. Other trenches contain variously contaminated liquids, chemicals, and radionuclides, which are leaching into the soil.

Hanford utilizes about a third of the budget for DOE's environmental restoration program, developed to deal with sites in the nation's nuclear weapons complex. With a projected 1996 budget of $5 billion, it is the largest program of its kind in the world. This cleanup, ultimately, may take $50 billion.

Preserving and protecting cultural resources is one of the many technical, economic, and social issues here. They have been actively managed since 1987, when DOE established the Hanford Cultural Resources Laboratory. Operated by Pacific Northwest Laboratory, the facility maintains permanent site records, project files, and collections for DOE. The lab also conducts project reviews for Hanford contractors as well as sitewide cultural resource studies for archeological sites and the built environment.5 Westinghouse Hanford Company, Hanford's operating contractor, provides sitewide services by allowing its historian, Michele Gerber, to write building histories and document technological processes. She also evaluates buildings for eligibility on the National Register.

In 1995, the environmental restoration contractor, managed by Bechtel Hanford, Inc., established its own cultural resource office and assigned one of its subcontractors, CH2M Hill Hanford, Inc., to run it. The need for the office was obvious. "Given the restoration project schedule and resource demands, as well as the volume of soils along the river requiring remediation, we anticipated that cultural resources could be a showstopper," says Terese LeFrancois, manager of environmental sciences. "An internal cultural resource team would be more cost effective, provide faster response, and provide continuity for such a critical element of our cleanup program."

The office, headed by Thomas E. Marceau, a former deputy state historic preservation officer from Wyoming, is proceeding on three major fronts to address DOE's mandate to do the work faster, better, and cheaper. "Proactive" has become a byword.

Involving Local Tribes

In 1993, DOE began meeting with the four Hanford tribes, first individually and then collectively. While each had its own concerns, the basic message from all four was similar. They wanted changes in the program, and greater involvement.

One of the major points was perhaps best expressed by Jeff Van Pelt, cultural resource program manager for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "We're not talking about stones and bones archeology! Hanford staff have to realize that cultural resources are more than stones and bones. To us, cultural resources are not just archeological and sacred sites, but traditional use areas, the river, landforms, animals, fish, and plants. Cultural resource management at Hanford needs to integrate all these elements."

Tribal representatives believed Hanford had been managing its cultural resources piecemeal, designating some areas worthy of protection and others not. "How can I say this area is important and that area is important, but in between isn't?" asked Richard Buck, cultural resource representative for the Wanapum Tribe. "All the land is important."

To gain a holistic perspective, the tribes wanted DOE to appreciate their entire cultural system. This meant conducting oral histories and other special studies, which sometimes include surveys of areas not slated for cleanup at Hanford.

Tribal staff also expressed concern about revealing the names and locations of sacred sites, unwritten knowledge passed between generations that is not meant to be openly shared. The tribes reiterated the need to restore land so that native plants and animals could thrive once again.

Out of the meetings came an informal commitment from DOE to work more closely with the tribes. DOE and contractor staff now meet regularly with them to review cleanup projects, identify traditional use areas, develop appropriate actions, and employ tribal staff to do the work. Recently, for example, Wanapum elders advised on how to protect cultural sites during cleanup. Similar efforts with the other tribes are planned.

These efforts are not to be construed as the formal consultation mandated by various federal laws and DOE's own American Indian Policy. This consultation can occur only through government-to-government discussions between DOE management and tribal leaders. However, we believe that the more Hanford and tribal cultural resource staff interact, the more likely it is that higher level consultations will proceed smoothly.

Avoiding the Lose-Lose Scenario

If work stops once it begins because cultural resources, which should have been documented or anticipated, are encountered unexpectedly, the consequences will be immediate; the resource could be damaged, and increased costs to the project in terms of schedule and budget could be significant. It's just a lose-lose situation," says Lew Pamplin, manager of the project's natural resources section, which contains the cultural resources office.

As everyone in this business knows, the key to protecting archeological sites is to incorporate them into decision making as early as possible. Traditionally at Hanford, cultural resource issues were not addressed until planning was finished and fieldwork set to begin. To change the paradigm, this office assesses sites up front, identifying areas of potential concern and proposing plans of action to deal with them.

Each waste site is evaluated, taking the following into account.

Human Use Potential. If cultural resources are within 400 meters of the cleanup area, remediation is considered to have a high potential to impact them; within 100 meters, the potential is considered extremely high. Further, areas within 400 meters of the river are considered to have high cultural resource potential. Therefore, cleanup there is considered to have a high potential for impacting them.

Degree of Land Disturbance Around the Waste Site. With construction photographs and observations as a guide, reactor areas are divided into three categories of disturbance: extensive, moderate, and minimal.

Size of the Contaminated Area or Waste Site. The size of the waste site directly impacts the probability for disturbing known or unknown archeological sites. The larger the waste site, the greater the amount of earth-disturbing activity associated with remediation. The deeper the contamination, the larger the excavation required to remove it.

By evaluating each waste site this way, we end up with a simple equation: CRIS = CRP x SCA, where: CRIS = Cultural Resource Impact Score; CRP = Cultural Resource Potential (Human Use Potential + Degree of Land Disturbance); and SCA = Size of Contaminated Area.

From the results we can identify waste sites that have high or very high potential for impacting cultural resources. This information helps the tribes, cultural resource staff, and project managers focus on the highest priorities.

This new approach is made easier by the fact that everyone works together to carry it out. The issues identified in the action plans encourage greater communication among all parties, maximize protection of cultural resources, and minimize costs and potential impacts to project schedules.

A New Way

The current anti-regulatory, cost-conscious feeling pervasive across the country demands that we find a better way. The Hanford industrial complex offers a case in point.

Clearly Hanford is an important historic site. But with over 2,000 buildings and structures, regulatory requirements could easily impact project costs and schedules, especially if sufficient time has not been allowed.

To reduce these impacts, the environmental restoration contractor established an historic buildings task force composed of cultural resource professionals (including the contractor's archeologists, the Westinghouse site historian, and the Hanford cultural resource lab's architectural historian), engineers (nuclear, chemical, mechanical, etc.), and facility managers. The task force is looking at Hanford in its historical setting, identifying significant structures using a sitewide evaluative process, and developing appropriate mitigation measures based on specific criteria that qualify a structure for listing on the National Register—all in consultation with the Washington State historic preservation office.

To date, the task force has developed four "evaluative contexts" to augment application of National Register criteria. These contexts describe the pre-Hanford era, the defense mission, nuclear technology (non-defense), and environmental management.

Presented in outline format, the contexts identify those elements and themes necessary to present the story of Hanford and its place in history. To facilitate clustering, the task force has devised a cross-classification matrix that combines structures into analytic units based on shared characteristics of function and property type. Although they are not fully developed historic contexts as defined by the National Park Service, they serve a comparable purpose—that is, to evaluate resources united by a common theme.

The task force has also developed a scheme that ranks each structure according to factors such as its physical condition, the type and timing of likely impacts, and National Register status. These scores are then used to determine not only the order in which structures must be considered, but also the extent of the documentation effort required. In this way, cultural resource needs are fully integrated into and complement project schedules.

Lastly, the task force is obtaining a waiver from the requirement to record entire classes of resources on historic property inventory forms. These resources consist of modular buildings; liquid waste cribs, tanks, and trenches; solid waste burial grounds; fuel storage tanks; and other minor elements of the industrial complex. These resources will be addressed instead in a descriptive format within the document that will describe the site evaluation process.

Through these exemptions, the state preservation office has nearly cut in half the number of resources that must be formally documented. Given reduced budgets for this fiscal year and the real prospect of further, more drastic reductions to come, these exemptions will allow DOE to focus time and funds on the most significant structures.

The synergy from this collective effort is saving the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars while still producing quality documentation of a priceless heritage.

Why We Must Adapt

Cultural resource managers across the nation face immense challenges these days. Native Americans want a more active role, taxpayers want federal budgets reduced, and private industry wants regulatory burdens removed. The preservation community needs to listen and adapt accordingly. If we don't, we run the risk of losing the very legislation that is the basis for our efforts.

At Hanford, we are learning that Native Americans will work with us if we are sincere in our efforts to involve them, if we broaden our interpretation of cultural resources, and if we focus on tribal recommendations to manage sites rather than merely acquire information about them. Project personnel, for their part, will incorporate our findings into planning because they want to avoid problems once work begins. And we are discovering that the state preservation office is increasingly open to new ways of doing business as long as DOE maintains its good faith efforts to comply with the regulations.

This is not to suggest that the job is easy. Working with federal and tribal bureaucracies can often be frustrating. Explaining the extent and location of contamination to tribal members entails appreciation for differing worldviews. Convincing project people that 30-year-old buildings are significant and need to be documented, while cleanup staff get laid off for lack of funds, is distressful. Surveying and testing for archeological sites in potentially contaminated areas requires special training in handling hazardous materials.

But when one walks along the river with Bobby Tomanawash, a Wanapum Elder, as he explains why the land is important to his people and points out plants that were used, and continue to be used, the place comes alive. And when one goes to a sterile concrete structure and site historian Michele Gerber describes its role in the Cold War, the place comes alive. At these times, it becomes clear that we must persevere in our attempts to preserve and protect the heritage that endures along the banks of the Columbia.

Darby C. Stapp is cultural resources coordinator and Joy K. Woodruff cultural resource specialist with CH2M Hill Hanford, Inc. Thomas E. Marceau is cultural resource specialist with Bechtel Hanford Inc. For more information contact Thomas E. Marceau, Bechtel Hanford Inc., P.O. Box 969, Richland, WA 99352, (509) 372-9289, fax (509) 372-9702 or Darby C. Stapp, (509) 372-9290, e-mail: darby_c_stapp@rl.gov.

Illustration and photographs courtesy Department of Energy.


1. Chatters, James C. 1989. Hanford Cultural Resources Management Plan. PNL-6942. Richland, WA: Pacific Northwest Laboratory.

2. Gerber, Michele S. 1992. On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

3. Ibid., p. 24.

4. Letter to D.C. Stapp, June 2, 1995.

5. Chatters, James C. 1992. "A History of Cultural Resource Management at the U.S. Department of Energy's Hanford Site, Washington." Northwest Anthropological Research Notes, 25(2): pp. 73-88.