Downriver speaks about the contamination of the Columbia River from nuclear production at Hanford. During Hanford’s peak production years, radioactive cooling water was released directly into the river; exposing fish, animals and humans to toxic radioactivity. In later years, radioactive and chemical waste was stored in single-shell tanks. With those tanks now leaking, the Columbia River and the areas downriver from Hanford, are again vulnerable to radioactive contamination.

 

Dianne Dickeman. Columbia River Near Hanford, Late Afternoon. 2009

Photo by Richard Nichol

 

RICHLAND DOCK, 1956

 

Someone launched a boat into the current,

 

caught and delivered fish to the lab

and someone tested for beta and P-32.

Someone with flasks and test tubes tested

and re-tested to double check the rising values.

 

And someone drove to the public dock

with a clipboard and tallied species and weight.

Chatting with his neighbors, Which fish

are you keeping? How many do you eat?

 

And someone with a slide rule in a pool of light

figured and refigured the radionuclide

dose Too high. Experimented frying up

hot whitefish. No. No. Then someone decided

 

all the numbers were wrong. Someone

from our town. Is that why we

were never told? While someone fishing—

that little boy; the teacher on Cedar Street—

 

caught his limit and never knew.

 

-- Kathleen Flenniken

 

This poem is included in the collection, Plume,

University of Washington Press, 2012.

Zach Mazur. Columbia River I Beneath Vernita Bridge. 2008

Reaching the Columbia

 

you, specter, posing as my river

shallows stoop to dams upstream

 

can I mop shoals' riffles clean?

soils lure salmon to hatch

tracks point to the attack

 

face-down atomic remains

float, dredged pain from

a seventy-year nuclear chain

my friend turns away

old scars still cast their sway

 

willows spread at Hiroshima's Ota

cousins of Columbia's mulberries

tree-lost banks wounded, leached

clusters at spoil banks once sap-fed

songbirds wing over roots bled

 

Kyoko sees faces in the waters

we search the cliffs, Hanford Reach

I, to find unfelt nuclides beached

she, with slipped-off skin from child's frantic arms

Shall I show you how we dressed our wounds?

 

Manhattan-reached Hanford, now breached

Plutonium frolics in the Columbia

water's edge where poisons percolate

fish test positive, Pluto invades their fat

Hanford claims, "Oh we don't test for that!"

 

once your waters had spine

ice floods churned its glacial brine

locomotive flows tore the scabbed land,

grinding falls cut channels new

Columbia's riverscapes engined true

 

Where are the people who worked here?

 

I give her photos: a hundred thousand hired

avoiding war, working The Area

hopeful faces at tent cities' cots

from weathered farms to a secret spot

coyotes, deer see us, turn away

leery pelicans, cormorants fly

(honest decent humans, she and I)

animals flee up teal-fled creeks

our reactors, welded shut, still leak.

 

-Tom Buchanan