For the fifth time in 15 years, the state of Washington is fighting the federal government in court over Hanford cleanup. The state’s top cleanup watchdog in Richland -- who grew up just downstream from the nuclear site -- plays a major role in that case
Jane Hedges used to play on bobbing docks on the Columbia River swimming with her friends in summer. She now realizes the water she was playing in was contaminated with the leftovers from producing plutonium.
But back then she gave it nary a thought.
“I don’t think I really had any idea exactly of what they did,” Hedges said. “I knew there were reactors you know and they made something.”
‘My mom and dad still live there’
But Hedges clearly remembers the day that she started to grow up a bit.
She was doing environmental work for the government in the Puget Sound. One day in the early ‘90s she picked up a newspaper and read a headline. It declared a burping underground tank of radioactive waste at the site. Officials were afraid a tank called SY-101 was venting flammable hydrogen gas.
“And it was like, ‘What? My mom and dad still live there. My sister still lives there,’” she said. “‘What is going on?’”
Looking back on that moment now, she thinks she might have been naive about her hometown. Later, she moved back. She did environmental consulting work for counties. She eventually landed a job working on Hanford cleanup for the state.
One day she took a tour of Hanford. She climbed to the top of the “H” Reactor on the Columbia River. And it hit her:
“I think the shock initially of how much waste was dumped on the surface of the ground. And the variety of chemicals that were used,” Hedges noted. “It was just mind boggling, really.”
She saw massive pits in the earth where workers had dug away contaminated soil. Some were hundreds of feet long. And then she knew there were the 177 aging tanks of radioactive waste underground -- some, leaking.
“The contrast of turning one way and seeing the river and then looking across it and seeing the homes and the agriculture that was there and then turning and looking back -- it certainly brought everything that was being done into a really clear focus,” Hedges said.
Hedges became the top state ecologist in Richland the year after she saw that, overseeing 70 people.
The state and the federal government are in litigation over tank waste cleanup deadlines -- again. Hedges helped strike the last contentious agreement back in 2010. But timelines are not on track and her job is to support the state’s case in a lawsuit.
“We’re here again,” Hedges said. “That’s very hard, that’s really hard. We had delays, we agreed to delays but we were moving in a positive direction – and then you kind of go back to where you started from in some ways. It can be really challenging.”
Those leaking tanks aren’t that far from the Columbia -- and the docks of her youth.
Photography by Kai-Huei Yau, audio and story by Anna King, design by Doug Gast. Family photos courtesy of Jane Hedges.