As Published in The Commuter 4/26/2017
Parents, children and dogs happily made their way over pools of toxic wastewater while navigating narrow foot bridges — a typical sunny afternoon at Talking Water Gardens.
For two years, a plant in Albany, Oregon, processed depleted uranium for the U.S. nuclear weapons program and Talking Water Gardens is just a stone’s throw from some of the plant’s facilities.
ATI Wah Chang has processed radioactive materials on the banks of the Willamette River for over 50 years, mainly zirconium. Although the area the plant occupies is now technically Millersburg, the plant operates to this day.
A 2008 recommendation by the Oregon Department of Human Services stated, “Contaminants in soil, surface water, and groundwater within the plant itself pose no public health hazard because the general public does not come into contact with it.”
Oregon Health Authority Media Officer Jonathan Modie had no comment to offer when asked about the 2008 Wah Chang PHA Summary Fact Sheet, which was removed from the DHS website shortly after the interview.
Modie said the Summary Fact Sheet was removed because it was outdated, and replaced with a document from 2009 that referenced fish tissue test results from 1991.
Talking Water Gardens was opened in 2011 as a result of a joint effort by ATI and the cities of Millersburg and Albany as a tourist attraction that serves a practical purpose. It’s a water treatment facility for the plant and the municipalities’ wastewater.
The same document also recommended that ATI Wah Chang “maintain perimeter fencing, monitoring programs and security measures that prevent public access to areas within the Wah Chang plant.”
Lining the entrances and paths around Talking Water Gardens are signs warning visitors not to come into contact with or consume any of the water present.
Treatment Plant Supervisor Scott LaRoque said Talking Water Gardens routinely processes over 6 million gallons of wastewater a day, including 2 million gallons from Wah Chang.
LaRoque said the effluent into the river is routinely tested for pH, chlorine, temperature, biochemical oxygen demand, and total suspended solids. LaRoque said he was “not sure” if the water is tested for zirconium or other radioactive materials before pouring into the Willamette River.
Kristen Preston, the city of Albany’s wastewater superintendent, who has knowledge of testing at Talking Water Gardens, spoke in reference to testing at Talking Water Gardens.
“As far as radiation, I don’t think we’ve ever tested for it as far as I know,” said Preston.
LaRoque was unsure of whether the public is allowed to see any test results.
“It’s not a typical request and we’re not necessarily willing to release them,” said LaRoque.
In 2008, Oregon DHS also recommended testing be done on Second Lake and warnings be given near ATI Wah Chang and the eventual site of Talking Water Gardens. Fish from Second Lake had previously tested positive for radioactive contaminants.
“As far as I know, we haven’t done any radiation testing on Second Lake or anything like that,” said Preston.
LaRoque said he was “not sure” of the last time Second Lake was tested but believed it to be around the time Talking Water Gardens was completed.
“I don’t believe we’re doing any more testing on it,” said LaRoque.
Tom Sauter, U.S. Army veteran and former surveyor, has been a resident of Albany for 25 years and regularly walks his dogs at Talking Water Gardens. Sauter described himself as “very” concerned with what might be in the water at Talking Water Gardens.
“I see people letting their dogs drink out of it and then I don’t see their dogs a couple years later,” said Sauter.
At A Glance:
ATI Wah Chang has processed toxic materials for over 50 years.
Previous tests on surrounding waterways have shown toxic and radioactive chemicals.
No testing for radioactive and toxic chemicals has taken place since 1991, although a recommendation was made to retest in 2008.
Oregon DHS has stated that retesting in unnecessary since levels were low in 1991.