Wildlife where US Once Made Nuclear, Chemical Weapons

    25 August, 2019

    A few places where the United States manufactured and tested some of the most deadly weapons ever made are now safe for wild animals.

    One such place is a forest in the state of Indiana. Another can be found on a small island in the Pacific Ocean.

    The Associated Press reports that a surprising mix of animals and natural habitats are in good health on six former weapons test areas. The U.S. government mainly tested nuclear or chemical weapons on those sites. The government barred people from making visits after the testing ended.

    Now, these areas belong to wild animals. The government set up wildlife refuges, or shelters, for them under the Fish and Wildlife Service, a federal agency. Today these areas are home to black bears and black-footed ferrets, coral reefs, rare birds and even endangered fish.

    But the cost of setting up the wildlife refuges is huge. And critics say the areas are still not clean or safe enough for human beings.

    The U.S. military, the Department of Energy and private companies have spent more than $57 billion to clean up the six heavily polluted sites. That amount is based on information gathered by The Associated Press (AP) from military and civil agencies.

    And the biggest costs have yet to be paid. The Energy Department estimates it will cost between $323 billion and $677 billion more to finish the costliest cleanup. That would be at the Hanford Site in Washington State, where the government produced plutonium for bombs and missiles.

    Pollution left behind

    Even after the cleanups, there is still a lot of contamination at these sites, some experts say. They say this contamination requires restrictions on where visitors can go. They also say the government should watch the areas very closely – possibly for hundreds of years.

    "They would be worse if they were surrounded by a fence and left off-limits," said David Havlick. He is a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He studies efforts to clean up former military sites for wildlife. "It would be better if they were cleaned up more," Havlick added.

    Researchers have yet to examine the health risks to wildlife at the cleaned-up refuges as much as they have studied the risks to humans. However, very few problems have been reported.

    At least 30 of the more than 560 refuges under the control of the wildlife service have some history with the military or weapons, the AP found. Most were not used for making nuclear or chemical weapons.

    Many of the conversions came after the first and second world wars, simply to create more park areas, said Mark Madison, who works as an historian for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

    But when U.S. relations with the Soviet Union improved in the 1980s, other military lands became refuges. Some were among the most dangerously polluted areas in the country.

    In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, geese fly near the Hanford Reach National Monument along the Columbia River near Richland, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
    In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, geese fly near the Hanford Reach National Monument along the Columbia River near Richland, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

    Reborn as a beautiful field

    Critics agree that the refuges are valuable, but warn that the natural beauty might hide serious environmental damage.

    The military closed the sites to keep people safe from the dangerous work that went on there, not to save the environment, noted Havlick of the University of Colorado.

    Changing a heavily polluted weapons center into a wildlife refuge costs less than making it safe for homes, schools and businesses, notes Adam Rome. He teaches environmental history at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

    Critics say Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado shows the problems with a cleanup good enough for animals, but not humans. The arsenal is about 16 kilometers from the center of Denver, Colorado's capital. The area was once an environmental disaster where chemical weapons and pesticide products were made. Thousands of ducks died after swimming in water there in the 1950s.

    The government spent $2.1 billion to clean the area and renamed it Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. It is 61 square kilometers of beautiful fields where visitors can walk or drive a car. But people are still banned from areas where the Army left contaminated dirt. It is illegal to eat fish or any animal from the refuge. Water treatment centers remove contaminants from groundwater to keep them out of people's drinking water.

    The most worrisome

    Hanford in Washington may be the most problematic refuge of all. The government has already spent $48 billion and many more billions are needed.

    The cost to clean up the contaminated waste is rising quickly. Department of Energy investigators say the project has been mismanaged.

    Also, Washington state officials are worried that the Trump administration wants to reclassify wastewater at Hanford from high-level radioactive to low-level. The proposed changes would weaken the rules for the cleanup and cut costs. Energy Department officials say there are no plans to change the classification. But state officials say they want long-term and legally effective guarantees.

    Madison, the Fish and Wildlife Service historian, believes that if agency officials thought the areas were unsafe for the public, they would not work there.

    "They're there all the time," Madison said. "They're not going to want to be in a place with chemical pollution or radiation problems."

    I'm Susan Shand.

    This story was reported by the Associated Press. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    habitat - n. the place or type of place where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives or grows

    contamination - n. to make (something) dangerous, dirty, or impure by adding something harmful or undesirable to it

    conversion - n. the act or process of changing from one form, state, etc., to another

    pesticide - n. a chemical that is used to kill animals or insects that damage plants or crops

    mismanage - v. to manage something badly

    reclassify - v. to reorganize something