Aggressive Regionalism: Commentary

10. Herbert M. Parker and D. F. Shaw, Hanford Literature

Late in 1942 representatives of the Manhattan Project arrived in Washington to find a place where the U.S. Army and the DuPont corporation could build a factory for producing plutonium for atomic weapons for use in World War Two. They selected a large tract of land along the Columbia River, between Priest Rapids and the confluence of the Yakima River, and evicted the inhabitants in early 1943. Importing a work force of about 50,000 people, the Army and DuPont constructed the world’s first full-scale production reactors, a host of other processing buildings, and the entire town of Richland. Even though most of the construction work force left before the war’s end, the project attracted a wide variety of newcomers to the region. It also transformed a largely rural economy, society, and culture into something more industrial, urban, and high-tech.

In September of 1944 the Hanford site began producing plutonium and polluting the nearby environs with liquid, solid, and gaseous wastes.  In less than a year Hanford plutonium had been used in the bombs detonated in the Trinity Test (July 16, 1945) and at Nagasaki, Japan (August 9, 1945). The pace of production (and pollution) slowed with the war’s end, but by late 1946 Hanford was accelerating manufacturing anew. As the United States entered the Cold War and determined that it would rely on nuclear weapons in confronting the Soviet Union, Hanford served as its only supplier of plutonium until the early 1950s. Between 1947 and 1964 the site not only continued to expand production but also diversified so that by 1966 one of its nine reactors produced electricity for regional utilities. After 1964, however, Hanford went through fits of contraction during which its role in America’s nuclear weapons program declined. After a final bout of plutonium production between 1982 and 1987, the site ceased manufacturing weapons-grade fuel, and gradually turned to clean-up as its major mission (Sanger 1995; Gerber 1992).

Over the years Hanford has directly and indirectly generated a tremendous amount of written material. The bureaucracies and companies that built and operated the site, like the sponsors of virtually all large, government-related projects in the period after 1940, produced an enormous amount of documentation—much of which remains classified. Some of this documentation discusses place, both the specific Hanford site and the broader region of the Pacific Northwest. However, the people who built and operated the plutonium factory generally came from outside the region, and to a certain extent the communities they created in and around the Tri-Cities area of Washington (Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland) remained separate enclaves within the Northwest with their own ways of doing and expressing things. Moreover, much information pertaining to production and pollution by the plant was meant to be secret, a fact that generated both a distinctive jargon for the site and a system of containing the spread of information. At least one scholar (Hales 1997) consequently interprets the language of documents generated at Hanford as part of an authoritarian system of social and thought control. This conclusion probably overreaches, largely because it does not take seriously enough the national-security contexts in which the site operated. Yet when health physicist Herbert M. Parker described a worrisome release of radioactive ruthenium to the environment around Hanford in the summer of 1954 (see the included texts), he chose his classified words with extraordinary care in order to minimize both the significance of the emission and the chance that the public would ever get wind of it.

In addition to generating its own documents, Hanford also provoked a barrage of other writing by people in the Northwest. Initially, much of this writing was favorable because the site represented economic development, high technology, and a patriotic mission. Indeed, newcomers drawn to the area by the plutonium factory identified in a positive sense with earlier generations of pioneers, and wrote about their “frontier” experience with self-assurance and optimism (Findlay 1995). Over time, however, reactions to Hanford became much less favorable as the extent of its pollution and its secrecy became better known, as the nation’s environmental awareness grew, and as opposition to nuclear weapons increased. By the 1980s and 1990s much writing about Hanford was sharply critical. Bill Witherup (1989:59), who spent much of his youth in Richland, conveyed the rising bitterness in a poem, “My Father Dying: 1984,” about his dad who spent 30 years working at the site:

He burns with prostate cancer.
Carried plutonium home in his underwear,
Ashes of Trinity; Ashes of Nagasaki. . . .

Until the 1960s, Hanford had been viewed as an ingenious solution to national problems; thereafter, it became better known as a place (somewhat imposed on the region by a distant federal government) that had caused problems for the Northwest. In the same way that Witherup attributes his father’s cancer to Hanford, so Teri Hein suggests that the site was responsible for the wave of illness and death that struck the farm community where she grew up, downwind from the plutonium factory. Her charming memoir Atomic Farmgirl (Hein 2000:66-67, 73) puts into words the widespread sentiment that the agricultural neighborhoods of eastern Washington were “natural…places,” while “on the opposite side of the spectrum would be Hanford, the most unnatural place….” And while Hein regarded her rural community as “normal,” the town housing the families of Hanford’s work force once more seemed to be its antithesis:

Richland was not a normal town, especially for rural eastern Washington. Almost every resident was a government employee in one way or another.  Everybody worked in secret jobs, lived in look-alike houses, and were strangers from somewhere else. Nobody knew or cared much about the land that surrounded them.

Hein captured widespread attitudes toward Hanford during the 1990s, and identified real differences between it and the other settlements of eastern Washington. But she also tended to idealize the “naturalness” of agricultural communities. That most farmers in the region employed pesticides and chemical fertilizers, that they advocated networks of dams on nearby rivers and irrigation canals around eastern Washington, suggests that they too bore some responsibility for injecting unhealthful and “unnatural” elements into Northwest environs.

Perhaps the most accomplished poet to write about Hanford to date is Debora Greger. Her father, like Bill Witherup’s, worked at Hanford, and she grew up in the Tri-Cities. Although Teri Hein would have predicted otherwise, Greger learned to love the terrain surrounding Hanford:

This is the landscape by which all others are found wanting. The bare hills—such extravagance of browns and grays. The silvery browns. The brassy, coppery, golden grays. The Bois de Bologne, the hills of Umbria, even Seattle just over the mountains—too green, too many trees. The canyons of Manhattan—so much to see, you couldn’t see anything. Richland had more than enough sky.  Wind was the landscape. It had swept out the past; the present was dust. I can almost taste it. The rain smelled sweetly of it. Even the snow was dusty. Even the dust, though we didn’t know it then, was radioactive (Greger 1996:2).

The poems in her collection Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters speak about the impact of Hanford on her youth as well as her adulthood; her Catholic upbringing; and the natural setting of eastern Washington. One called “Northwest Passage” incorporates Lewis and Clark as well. “Down to the Sea of the West, Lewis wrote,/ along the banks, out over the water,/ the tribes had built platforms to fish from,/ so many they were almost continuous./ “And did you eat fish from the river/ more than once a week when you were a child?”/ the doctor will ask, but not for years yet,/ not for years” (Greger 1996:25).

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