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The Mythical Kingdom Beyond the Sagebrush

Nov 17, 2023

I was supposed to write a blog post about vitrification this week; but after writing it, scrapping it, and then re-writing it, several times over—I’ve decided that topic can wait. Vitrifying waste is cool and is an accomplishment worth discussing and celebrating—which is why that will be the next blog post. This week, I want to change course a little bit.

Hi. My name is Bethany, and I am the person behind some of the more recent content you’ve seen from Hanford Communities. Hanford Communities was created to give our local governments a voice in Hanford cleanup, but there’s so much more that can be done with this platform. While our local elected leaders are certainly key stakeholders when it comes to Hanford and the cleanup legacy, the most important stakeholders are the people who live in our community—we are directly impacted by how well, (or not well) the site is cleaned up. Our local economy, workforce, water sources, and environment all depend on the success of this cleanup.

I’ll confess, I didn’t grow up here. I’m not a long-timer, and it wasn’t that long ago I was concerned about what was in the river, or that everyone who lived downstream from Hanford was exposed to radioactivity. (I saw that eyeroll, by the way.)

I’m a “west-sider” sure, but Tri-Cities has always held a special place in my heart, and the pull to call this region home has been there since I was little. While I didn’t grow up here, I visited often. My most fond memories were spent in the waters of the Columbia River. I’ve been here for a little over two years now, and you can breathe a sigh of relief because I have since shed the west-side stereotypical mindset of “Eastern Washington glows”. But that’s what I’m talking about—I fell victim to Hanford click bait and fearmongering, but was only delivered due to my professional connections, and my story isn’t unique. Not so long ago, everyone knew someone who worked at Hanford, and (after the Manhattan Project of course) people knew at least a little bit about what was going on there. Now, the Tri-Cities’ population is rapidly growing, and many people have no idea what Hanford is, what’s being done there, or what the risks are (and aren’t).

Odds are, if you’re reading this, you’re an elected official, or someone closely related to the cleanup, and you know all about Hanford. But, for those who have no idea, like me, our community needs a refresher.

Hanford has become a “mythical kingdom beyond the sagebrush” for the average community member and without information, our community becomes indifferent at best, but at worst, fear wins in the headlines, and where fear and misinformation live unchecked, it gives rise to enduring negative consequences.

Now is the perfect time for a refresher on Hanford cleanup, even if it’s a challenging topic to discuss. Cleanup is technical, expensive, and time-consuming, and at times, controversial, which can make it hard to engage the public. We must bridge the knowledge gap and make the topic more accessible.

I heard an analogy a few months ago that describes this challenge perfectly. Imagine a song in your head. Now tap the song for a friend. You can hear the melody and rhythm so perfectly, but your friend just looks at you in confusion trying to find a correlation to the rhythmic tapping to a song. Once you reveal your song choice, their brain is also playing the song in unison with your tapping. While many of us live and interact with those who live and breathe Hanford cleanup every day, it is easy to become disillusioned that everyone knows what we know; that when we explain the complexity, their minds can fill in the gaps. Just talking about high- and low-level waste, and using the words strontium and cesium—we know what those words mean, but would the listener—or would it just be meaningless tapping?

Hanford Communities’ biggest stakeholder is, paradoxically, the one who often knows the least about the subject. It’s the average community member who is directly impacted by the Hanford cleanup efforts but remains largely unaware of the intricacies and importance of this endeavor; a “mythical kingdom beyond the sagebrush” for many residents, a place shrouded in mystery and apprehension.

Tri-Citians take immense pride in this region, the Hanford Site’s contributions to our national security, as well as the complex and challenging cleanup legacy left behind. While many community members may perceive Hanford as a mysterious realm, the reality is that the cleanup is crucial not just for the present but for our children, neighbors, and future generations. The upcoming public comment periods, including the Test Bed Initiative Phase II, highlight the ongoing necessity of community involvement.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative for our community members to understand and speak about ongoing cleanup efforts, and your involvement matters in shaping the future of Hanford and the broader Mid-Columbia region. As Hanford Communities ramps up our platform to be an informational hub to better arm our community with information, we encourage you to follow us on social media, attend the Hanford Dialogue (5:30pm on December 5th at the Pasco Red Lion), and be mindful in your day-to-day conversation; not everyone can hear the song in your head,  but there are ways to have this necessary, complex conversation, and Hanford Communities is here to help.

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