YAKIMA, Wash. — For decades, Russell Jim has worked to remedy Hanford’s legacy of nuclear waste.
Over the years, it has taken him to a mine atop Hanford’s Gable Mountain, the halls of Congress and to Yakama Nation tribal meetings in Toppenish.
In the process, he helped block the federal government from making Hanford a repository for the nation’s high-level nuclear waste and was instrumental in giving Northwest tribes a voice in nuclear cleanup.
But Jim recalls the first time he called Hanford officials in the 1970s to talk about protecting resources in the Columbia River basin.
They wouldn’t listen, he said, because they doubted the Yakama Nation had the legal authority or technical abilities to tackle the complexities of nuclear waste generated by decades of plutonium production at the 580-square-mile nuclear reservation.
But Jim, then a Yakama Tribal councilman and chairman of the tribe’s natural resources committee, wouldn’t go away. And his years of relentless effort to protect the Columbia River’s fish, plants and other resources — the basis of his people’s existence since time immemorial — have significantly shaped how nuclear waste is handled in the United States.
“I think he’s been a major player in the Hanford cleanup and he’s been one of the sharpest critics of the process and a very constructive one,” said John Bassett, president of Heritage University, where Jim was awarded an honorary doctorate degree earlier this week for his work.
Jim not only holds the knowledge of his traditional teachings and cultural history, but also understands the science behind nuclear waste and its cleanup, Bassett said.
He speaks “for an injured land that couldn’t speak for itself,” the university said in awarding the degree.
Jim has never shied away from addressing large crowds about cultural preservation and a need to protect the land, but on Monday he sat quietly during the ceremony at the university, which was attended by more than 200 family, friends, colleagues and faculty members.
Last September, a stroke robbed Jim of his ability to speak. His abilities to think and reason remain intact.
Born in 1935, Jim was raised in the seven-drum religion and fished at the once-great Celilo Falls — an ancient fishing site and trading hub on the Columbia River — before it was drowned by The Dalles Dam in 1957.
As he grew up, he worked as a land surveyor for the tribe, a gandydancer for the railroad, and spent time working in the fields picking apples and hops.
Retired attorney Ray Givens, who represented the Yakama Nation in federal court behind Jim’s charge for better cleanup, said Jim successfully tapped his life experiences in his approach to leveraging for better cleanup.
“He can walk in all of those worlds,” Givens said.
When Jim was 8, the federal government established Hanford to produce plutonium, the basic ingredient in the world’s deadliest weapons.
Plutonium for the first nuclear bomb, which was detonated in a test in New Mexico, was manufactured there. So, too, was the plutonium in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
By the end of the Cold War, no fewer than nine nuclear reactors and assorted production facilities had churned out enough plutonium for more than 60,000 nuclear weapons.
Left behind were 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste, another 25 million cubic feet of solid nuclear waste and 200 square miles of contaminated groundwater beneath the site.
Meanwhile, the federal Department of Energy began searching for a place to establish a nuclear waste repository, where waste from around the country would be sealed in containers and buried deep underground. The federal government looked at Native American reservations for possible repository sites and began funding tribes to study the option.
On behalf of the Yakama tribe, Jim accepted federal funding and established the tribe’s Environmental Restoration and Waste Management program.
Many thought he was in favor of locating a repository at Hanford.
But his intentions were quite the opposite, Givens said.
Jim hired scientists to study the area and support his argument that nearby volcanoes, such as Mount St. Helens, and the Columbia River and its tributaries made Central Washington too unstable to warehouse nuclear waste.
“He hired experts to say that Hanford was the worst place to do it,” Givens said. “This stuff will last for hundreds of thousands of years. Rivers move, mountains blow up.”
Excluding Hanford as a possible site didn’t happen overnight. In fact, Jim persuaded his tribe to sue the federal government when the Energy Department began drilling test holes into Gable Mountain at Hanford, recalls Brian Barry, an environmental specialist with the tribe who spent years working for Jim.
By that time, Hanford had already created a tunnel on the side of the mountain and scientists were testing how heat from radioactive waste might affect the region’s basalt.
“They brought up a giant drill rig to drill down 3,000 feet,” Barry said. “Russell stopped it. He had the tribal government file a lawsuit to stop it.
“I think what the Yakamas did at that time, thanks to Russell, was to amass all this information to show that Hanford wasn’t an appropriate place for disposal. Russell worked tirelessly to assure that Hanford wasn’t going to be a waste dump.”
Jim then managed to secure a spot on the federal committee that recommended a location for a repository, which was eventually established at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
“He knew his stuff; when it came to Hanford he was very technically capable,” said Jill Conrad, Hanford’s tribal program manager. “He didn’t always accept the Hanford way. He continually challenged those processes in a way he felt were more applicable to the Yakama Nation. He got a lot of people to listen.”
But the issue of cleanup is far from over. In 2002, the Yakama Nation again sued the federal government over cleanup, and that resulted in the Energy Department being held responsible for covering the cost of a damage assessment of natural resources and restoring the environment.
The assessment has yet to be completed.
“Energy is moving quite slow on that,” Givens said.
And in 2014, the Yakamas filed an intent to sue the federal government after learning that Hanford was digging down only 15 feet to remove waste in some areas, Barry said.
“The Yakamas said they’re not going for that,” he said. “The Yakamas are continuing on with Russell’s recommendations. I’m pretty confident from what I’ve recently heard that the Yakamas are not backing off on that.”
Jim viewed his charge for cleanup as part of his responsibility to protect his people’s aboriginal ties to the land, water and fish.
“What he used to tell people is that salmon is part of his DNA, and having healthy salmon is important to having a healthy tribal community,” Conrad said. “He had a way of speaking about his cultural value that provided insight. He would personalize it and make it real for people.”
But his message and hope has reached beyond his indigenous people, as he has regard for the human health of all.
“He sort of became the conscience of the cleanup — that’s the way I look at it.” Givens said. “Being so grounded in the Yakama traditional way of life, cultural, spiritual, he lived it. And he brought that up in this scientific world.”
Information from: The Spokesman-Review, http://www.spokesman.com