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Modie said the Summary Fact Sheet was removed because it was outdated, and replaced with a document from 2009 that referenced fish tissue test results from 1991.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.
Story and Photos by K.Rambo