Love of the Environment Helps Gorton Tackle Remediation Clean-up Efforts at a Contaminated Nuclear Site

December 5, 2014

Gorton_Alicia USE THIS PHOTOOn August 9, 1945, the U.S. dropped the second of 2 atomic bombs, this one on the city of Nagasaki, effectively ending World War II. The plutonium bomb codenamed “Fat Man” killed an estimated 73,884 people and injured an additional 74,909.

Part of the Manhattan Project in 1943, the plutonium for this bomb was manufactured at the B Reactor at what would become known as the Hanford Site, located along the Columbia River in south-central Washington State. Used extensively during the Cold War, the site by its peak from 1956 to 1965 would be the home of 9 nuclear reactors and 5 reprocessing plants, producing approximately 63 tons of plutonium; this supplied the vast majority of the 60,000 nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal.

Today the Hanford Site, which represents two-thirds of the nation’s high-level radioactive waste by volume, is considered the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States. A mostly decommissioned nuclear production complex, the 585-square-mile site is operated by the federal government and is now the target of a massive remediation of the contaminated soil and groundwater.

“As you can imagine, the site has been extremely contaminated and many contractors are working with the U.S. Department of Energy to do the environmental cleanup, which I would say is the biggest environmental cleanup in the entire country, “says Alicia M. Gorton, Ph.D., EIT, A.M.ASCE, an environmental risk and decision analyst for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), which is involved in several remediation and environmental risk evaluations of the site. “I am specifically working on the development of a web-based GIS tool called Phoenix, where the public [will be able to] rapidly access and visualize historical environmental data from the Hanford Site. So if the public wanted groundwater monitoring data or wanted to view soil sampling locations and concentrations, they could actually view that data and see what the trends are over time.”

Another project that Gorton is working on for PNNL is the remedial investigation of the old orchard lands on Hanford site.

“When the federal government came in [to build the plutonium site] in 1943, the people who were settled in what were the towns of Hanford and White Bluffs were given 30 days to leave,” notes Gorton, who earned her doctoral degree in ocean engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. “However, a lot of these people owned plots of land where orchards grew, eventually leaving some of these lands contaminated with lead and arsenic because the orchard workers would spray pesticides (specifically, lead arsenate) on the trees to combat codling moths.

“That pesticide, which they sprayed on, either dripped off or the wind blew it from the orchard and it settled in the soil. So now some of the soil has lead and arsenic residues. What I am working on now is to evaluate the extent of the contamination from lead and arsenic and at some point in time we’ll work with the government to figure out what the remedial actions of that land will be.”

In describing her work, Gorton says, “I’m not your typical civil engineer; I haven’t built a bridge that hundreds of thousands of people commute over, I haven’t redesigned a dangerous intersection in a manner that will save lives. But for me, what I am doing is being the voice of the environment that can’t speak for itself.

“I am also trying to be a positive influence and role model for young girls.”

As the co-leader of Girl Scout Troup 4510 in eastern Washington and northern Idaho, Gorton helps young girls develop their leadership skills, while increasing their self-esteem, creativity, and independence by assisting with their Journey and Badge development, trip and budget planning, and product sales.

“These girls whom I lead are so brilliant, so smart, and they have so much enthusiasm, and they get so excited to learn about math and science; I feel like I am just trying to help people as [well as] I can,” says Gorton, whose husband Brandon Gorton is a security engineer and works on PNNL’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative. “Whether I am organizing events for engineers [at the ASCE Columbia Younger Members Forum] to network and develop their professional skills or if I am being a sister to Girl Scouts or if I am sharing a new piece of music as a member of the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, my goal for myself and other people is to learn something about ourselves that hopefully will make [our parts] of the world a better place.”

Gorton concludes, “So for me, I do feel that I am making the world a better place in a small way by working on projects [at PNNL] that take on environmental concerns. Having chosen a career path [as an environmental engineer] that is intertwined very closely with my personal life and my love and desire to serve and protect nature and the environment, makes being a New Face of Civil Engineering the achievement I am most proud of.”

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