REPERCUSSIONS: Native Americans

NUMEROUS SEASONAL ANCESTRAL hunting and fishing camps such as Tah-Koot and Wy-Yow-Na were located along the Hanford Reach—a fifty-one mile area at the northern edge of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation between Richland and Priest Rapids Dam. The Hanford Reach is the remaining free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River that remains wild and undammed, most likely resembling how the great river appeared prior to 1850. Ancestors of the Wanapum People, Yakama Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Colville, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, and the Nez Perce all used this region for hunting, fishing, and other subistance activities. Generations of local Indians fished along the Hanford Reach catching the fall run of Chinook salmon after the initial spawning period in order to sustain the seasonal return of salmon year after year. The reach is protected by the Vernita Bar Agreement, which protects all fall Chinook spawning habitat within its borders.

The local Wanapum Indians were among the first groups displaced when over 560 square miles of land surrounding the Hanford Reach was condemned for the secret Manhattan Project in the early 1940s. Although tribal members were initially promised admission to these areas, access was denied shortly thereafter in the name of National Security.

Indians displaced and relocated by the Manhattan Project continued their traditional lifestyle practices elsewhere, including fishing for salmon and other species along the great river. Their customary diet consisted of locally caught resident and migratory fish up to one and a half pounds a day (six to eleven times that of the national average) plus other subsistence activities including hunting game and foraging for berries or edible plants and nuts from the surrounding area. Although the 1995 Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction (HEDR) did take into account that substantial radioactive contamination occurred from effluent re-entering the river after being used to cool fuel rods, it based the Hanford dose occurring through the river pathway for Native Americans on a lower consumption model—ninety pounds of fish per year. Many regional Native Americans still consumed a traditional fish-heavy diet into the 1960s when radioactive releases into the river were particularly high due to nearly full operation of Hanford's nine reactors. A 2002 study suggested that the region's Indians were indeed the hardest hit group of Hanford downwinders due to their cultural eating habits. [1] The report noted that Indian families would often prepare fish by smoking, using the remaining leftovers in a boiled stew—a process that has the potential to release radioactive strontium from the contaminated fish bones if it is invisibly contained within. The HEDR did not consider the effects of consuming radioactive strontium in the original study.

Another $25 million study jointly carried out in 1989 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Inter-Tribal Commission focused on the dietary habits of four tribes in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho —the Yakimas, the Nez Pierce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs found that "for Native Americans eating the most salmon, steelhead and rainbow trout, the risk of developing cancer ranged from 7 cases in every 10,000 people to 2 in 1,000, based on tests of the fish caught at different locations in the Columbia Basin." [2] For individuals consuming long-lived resident fish varieties such as sturgeon risked a 2-in-100 chance of cancer at some locations in the basin. [3]

To determine a potential health risk from non-cancer diseases such as those effecting the liver, immune system and immune development, a hazard level was developed to calculate how much of a chemical can safely be eaten. For the general population a level of one is considered as safe. With the tribes overall dependence on locally caught fish as a primary food source, their average hazard level was elevated "to eight for [consumption of] salmon and trout but soared to 100 for two resident fish species—sturgeon and mountain white fish" both of which would technically bioaccumulate more radiation than migatory salmon. [4] Indeed, in the 1950s levels of radioactivity were so high in white fish and other species that Hanford officials considered entirely shutting down the sports fishery downstream of the facility.

Although the cancers and birth deflects suffered by regional Native Americans may be attributed to other sources of contamination including other industrial practices found along the river it is generally agreed by health professionals that most previous estimates of potential radiation exposure for Native Americans resulting from Hanford facility are extremely low and need to be reevaluated.