Richland, WA — Fifty-thousand people produce a lot of trash. Who knew their dump site could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places?
A dusty, rural stretch of southeast Washington became the state’s fourth-largest city at the height of World War II when thousands descended for a hush-hush construction project. Most didn’t know why they were there, learning only later that the reactor they had built produced plutonium for an atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
They lived in tents, then barracks they built, and dumped their trash in two landfills designated for household waste at what would become the Hanford nuclear reservation.
The federal government recently named the second landfill as eligible for historic listing — the first was deemed eligible in 2006. Now as workers prepare to dig up the landfills, they hope to learn more about the workers who moved cross-country for a top-secret project.
“It’s the way to get at the social history for a period of World War II, in a community that was remote and in a project where people were not being told what was going on or what they were doing,” said Tom Marceau, cultural resources supervisor for Hanford cleanup contractor Washington Closure Hanford. “It’s about the lives of the people who put this camp together.”
The war was grinding on in December 1942, when military advisers chose the arid, wind-swept land to build a reactor to produce plutonium, a new material, as part of the Manhattan Project.
Men were separated from women in two barracks. Most of their domestic waste was burned, but glass waste remains. Atop one landfill: scattered whiskey and blue Milk of Magnesia bottles, proof that they worked hard and played hard.
Landfill recognition has a precedent. The nation’s first sanitary landfill, in Fresno, Calif., was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2001.
At Hanford, Congress recognized B Reactor, which first went critical in September 1944, as a National Historic Landmark in 2008.
Research shows that at least one of the Hanford landfills could be the prototype for sanitary military landfills established during the World War II period, Marceau said. Archaeologists hope to study patterns of waste disposal from male and female workers, or black and white workers.
“Is there anything different in this community relative to other World War II communities during the war?” Marceau asked. “That’s what we want to know.”
Area tribes hope to see more information about their history uncovered as well. The landfills were excavated in areas that were already archaeologically sensitive to tribes, but there was no protection afforded the areas at that time, said Greg Cleveland, archaeologist for the Yakama Nation.
The landfill site includes more than two-dozen pit houses — discovered by archaeologists during the process to historically recognize the landfills — that served as wintering grounds. Clamshells, which were used to scrape deer hides, and arrow tips, have been found on the earth’s surface.
The Hanford Reach is the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River, which forms the northern and eastern borders of the Hanford site. No dams were built in the area and artifact hunters have been largely kept at bay by the federal land closure. Former President Clinton designated the area a National Monument in 2000.
Soil studies and learning which animals were on the landscape at a given time could offer more information not just about social trends, but climate trends, said Russell Jim, the Yakama Nation’s environmental restoration advocate for Hanford cleanup.
“In one way, some sites out there have been protected, because Hanford has been closed off,” Jim said. “But then again, we don’t know and may never know how much damage was done when there were 50,000 people out there.”