Oil-soaked oysters, contaminated salmon, 'radioactive' wine

We're living the effects of the BP oil spill and fearing a proposed open-pit mine near Bristol Bay. Should we worry about our own state's vineyards and orchards growing so close to Hanford's plutonium?

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We're living the effects of the BP oil spill and fearing a proposed open-pit mine near Bristol Bay. Should we worry about our own state's vineyards and orchards growing so close to Hanford's plutonium?

How to eat, what to eat, is the new question of our time, but we have become introspective and fearful in this Internet age. We wash our hands with germicidal soap, only to learn that the antibacterial chemical triclosan penetrates the skin and messes with our endocrine system. We buy “fat-free” half & half made with corn syrup solids, sugar, and carrageenan.
Carnauba wax, used for polishing cars when we were kids, is in today's processed foods by the ton. Prohibitionists say alcohol kills our brain cells, but we drink a glass of wine anyway hoping it will strengthen our immune system. In the name of food safety, our governments cozy up to Big Agriculture.
A recent Seattle Times story detailed new problems facing oyster growers on the Hood Canal: rising acidity levels in Puget Sound waters. But there are far more serious environmental threats to our food supply — one by land and two by sea.
The first, BP's recently capped underwater gusher, devastated the Gulf of Mexico's fishing industry. The second, a proposed open-pit mine in Alaska, could extinguish the salmon run in Bristol Bay. And the third, a vast heap of nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, threatens eastern Washington's agricultural heartland and world-renowned vineyards.

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“Doonesbury” skewered BP's inept public response to the Gulf oil-rig explosion, and questions about seafood safety also found their way into the comic strip: Blackened shrimp, oil-soaked scallops, and tar-encrusted crab were all on the menu at the fast-food emporium where Zonker works. 

In Seattle, the mood is grim. Kevin Davis, co-owner of Steelhead Diner and Blueacre Seafood, knows more than anyone in town what the stakes are. A native of Louisiana whose father was a drilling superintendent for Shell Oil, Davis grew up fishing in bayous and marshes that are now black with tar. Still, he's hopeful: “The fisherman know it's bad, but they're saying, 'Don't abandon us.' ” 

Davis' professional colleagues around the country agree. Chefs Collaborative, a national organization that fosters a sustainable food system, published a booklet last month, titled "Foods at Risk in the Gulf Coast," that was both cautionary and motivational. "As chefs, we need to support Gulf food producers as best we can,” it concluded. “Our support is critical to keeping our food culture alive and the local economy from collapsing."   

Still, WalMart has suspended the sale of seafood in Florida because of rising prices and falling demand. In Seattle, it's hard to find "Gulf Prawns” or “Louisiana Crabmeat” on the menu anywhere. Crayfish, being a freshwater species, are safe so far, although at last report oil had found its way into the larvae of blue crab and fiddler crab, a particularly bad sign for the speckled trout that feed on the crustaceans. To say nothing of the disruption of the bluefin tuna's spawning grounds in the Gulf. But the least fortunate of the Gulf's creatures would appear to be its oysters, once wildly abundant, now on the road to extinction. And the Gulf's communities of African-American oystermen, sad to say, appear to have been excluded from the (paying) jobs of cleaning up the mess.  

We shouldn't feel smug just because we're up here in the Pacific Northwest. Kevin Davis told me, discussing the Gulf oil disaster, “Anybody who drives a car is implicated.” 

For its part, BP has been running ads saying, "We'll make this right." But the company also claims that in order to pony up the $20 billion it's promised in damages, it has to continue deep-water drilling. 

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Chef Davis is also at the forefront of another environmental battle, 1,600 miles in the opposite direction from Seattle. Alaska's Bristol Bay, southwest of Anchorage and surrounded by thousands of square miles of Alaskan tundra, is "home" to half the world's wild sockeye salmon: Some 60 million animals pass through the bay enroute to their spawning grounds. It's a majestic landscape, inhabited only by a handful of native villages. Except for the salmon fishery out on the treacherous waters, there's no industry. “Vote with your fork,” says the promotional literature in a dozen Seattle restaurants that serve Bristol Bay salmon. 
Enter the developers in the form of Northern Dynasty, parent company of a mining project called the Pebble Partnership. A wealth of minerals lies beneath the tundra, and Pebble wants it. Gold, copper, molybdenum, silver, rhenium, palladium. The land was opened to mining in the waning days of the Bush administration, and the project had the enthusiastic support of Alaska's former governor, Sarah Palin. Trouble is, getting at the riches would require a vast open-pit mine, the world's biggest, on the headwaters of Bristol Bay. The pit would measure 15 miles across; the dam to hold back the mine's toxic tailings would be 700 feet high and 4.5 miles across, the world's most massive, bigger than the Three Gorges Dam in China, and built on a seismic fault.  

Davis, along with Seth Caswell of Emmer & Rye (and head of the Seattle Chefs Collaborative), is worried about the threats the mine would pose to Alaska's native culture. John Shively, on the other hand, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, says the chefs don't understand the project or appreciate what it could do for the people of the region.

Going a step further, a former Alaska legislator, Gail Phillips, last year called for a boycott of the Seattle restaurants supporting Bristol Bay. In response, Zach Lyons, spokesman for a group of Seattle farmers markets, said, “Just because no permits have been issued or applied for does not mean people concerned with the potential of this proposed mine should not already be taking action. Once permits start happening with mine projects, it is often too late."   

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So here's one that hasn't happened yet. Can't happen, won't happen, we convince ourselves. Trouble is, if it were to happen, there's no blow-out preventer to stop it.  

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, adjoining the Columbia River in Eastern Washington, is “home” to this country's largest stockpile of plutonium waste. The Columbia Valley wine region, covering virtually the entire Columbia basin, is also the country's largest AVA (American Viticultural Area), by acreage. 

According to a recent article in The New York Times, a new analysis indicates that the amount of plutonium buried at Hanford is nearly three times what the federal government previously reported, suggesting that a cleanup to protect future generations will be far more challenging than planners had assumed.   

“The Department of Energy sits on the nation's biggest nuclear nightmare. Its inventories of highly radioactive and toxic wastes defy comprehension,” says Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge advocacy group. “The escape of even a small fraction of such material into the environment would constitute a Chernobyl-sized catastrophe.” 

The Washington Wine Commission says it has “no information” about the plutonium stockpile sitting atop its vineyards and referred questions to the Department of Agriculture. Individual wineries remain mum. An Ag spokesman says the department is “ready,” with a 3-year-old pamphlet and a recently updated emergency-preparedness web page. The site talks about a 10-mile evacuation zone in the event of a “plume” but says nothing about a possible underground leak or release of radioactive contaminants into the soil or groundwater.  

And yet, agriculture is at the heart of Eastern Washington's economy. Some 40,000 farms throughout Washington employ 200,000 workers and generate $40 billion in revenue. The state's four leading agricultural counties (Yakima, Grant, Benton, and Franklin), responsible for $3.5 billion worth of crops, actually adjoin the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, with Walla Walla, in the fifth position, only 20 miles downstream. 

One reason the plutonium is stored at Hanford in the first place is the dry climate; it's assumed there will be no torrential rains leaching through the contaminated soils. The slightest leak, however remote the possibility, would compromise the state's image and stature as an agricultural breadbasket.

Washington leads the nation as a producer of apples, sweet cherries, and hops; it ranks second in potatoes and wine grapes. But while apples and cherries are sold as fresh fruit, and potatoes are ground up and smooshed into french fries, the grapes are more valuable in their processed form: premium wine, a product that carries the Washington State brand far beyond the state's borders. A bottle of Quilceda Creek cabernet sauvignon from the Yakima Valley does more for Washington's image in the Other Washington than, say, Doc Hastings. 

Or Dino Rossi. Or Patty Murray. Hanford is the largest nuclear-waste storage site in the U.S.; others are in South Carolina, Idaho, and Nevada, but the Obama administration has decided to close Nevada's Yucca Mountain facility. That's a win for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, whose NIMBY protests carry more weight than Sen. Murray's at the White House. Rossi and Murray are in agreement on this one issue: Ship as much nuclear waste as possible, and as soon as possible, out of Washington's back yard..  

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So here we are at the end of the tale. Take a deep breath, pour a cup of coffee and throw a muffin in the toaster. Time to think about the heart of breakfast. Time to behold nature's perfect food: the egg.  



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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).