If the image of toxic well water that looks like flat Mountain Dew doesn’t make you cringe, consider that such water is starting to leach into the Columbia River upstream from us.

    This ugly water is loaded with a cancer-causing chemical called hexavalent chromium inside the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington. It is just part of 165,000 tons of metals and chemicals and 550,000 curies of radiation that were dumped into Hanford’s soil and water during World War II and the Cold War.

    To put this amount of radiation into context, if it were all in the form of relatively stable radium-226, it would equal about 1,212.5 pounds of this extremely dangerous substance. During the World War II Manhattan Project, the “tolerance dose” for workers was set at one-millionth of a gram of radium. Even this is far more than any rational person would find healthy and there are an estimated 550 billion such doses lying around and under Hanford.

    But there is good news in Anna King’s story on the subject for Northwest News Network. A newly operational groundwater treatment plant is slowly flushing the chrome from Columbia-bound seepage. Another treatment plant is under construction that will use bacteria to remove two kinds of radioactive particles and other toxic materials.

    It has been hard to imagine just how it will be possible to keep this awful gunk out of our river. These new facilities offer a glimmer of hope that future generations may not face a nightmare of deadly contamination filtering into the Columbia.

    But the sheer scale of the problem coupled with uncertainty about the nation’s long-term fiscal health mean that we all must remain vigilant in looking out for our own interests. In particular, the Washington State Department of Ecology is troubled about undiscovered zones of radioactive particles that are too deep to dig up and which can leach into the groundwater.

    More efforts are required to identify hotspots and eliminate them before they make a difficult cleanup impossible. Keeping this poison out of our river warrants intense attention. We must use our finite financial resources wisely.


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