Pendleton and its Japanese sister-city Minamisoma could resume student exchanges as soon as 2015.
That's the initial verdict from seven-member delegation that visited the beleaguered Japanese coastal city in late April on a fact-finding mission. Minamisoma continues to recover from the devastating tsunami of 2011 and subsequent nuclear plant disaster that forced an evacuation of the city.
Pendleton has not sent students since the disasters. Delegates said the goal would be to resume exchanges as soon as next year.
The delegation consisted of Pendleton Mayor Phillip Houk, City Manager Robb Corbett, Councilwoman Jane Hill, Pendleton School Board member Dave Krumbein, Blue Mountain Community College president Camille Preus, accountant and former exchange member Melissa Newhouse, and Chuck Sams, communications director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
The group was in Minamisoma for 48 hours, but delegates said members made the most of that, talking with a variety of sources from medical experts to families living in disaster shelters, and the Japanese hosts worked to answer questions and provide relevant data. The thrust of the trip was to find out if Minamisoma was safe enough to allow Pendleton students to stay in the region for a two-week exchange, which is the heart of the sister-city relationship.
"I think we were pretty much in agreement that we could come back and report ... it was safe," Sams said.
Hill concurred and said she would even send her own children there.
Hill said the Oregon Health Authority Radiation Safety Division informed her while levels in Japan are elevated overall due to the ground deposition of radioactive material, the levels would not be a health concern for the delegation.
"They said the ambient (environmental) dose rate in March of 2012 was 290 millirem/year, and the Japanese government level deemed safe for human habitation is 2000 millirem/year," Hill said. "They said we would have to be there for at least 300 days to get enough dose for one chest X-ray at that level."
But to check, the delegation brought along a dosimeter. Hill wore it before the trip and it registered zero, and Sams wore it in Japan. The only time the device registered radiation was when Sams went through the X-ray machine at the Japan airport.
Sams said doctors at the Minamisoma hospital presented some of the most compelling evidence of the area's safety. They doubted the Japanese government's official findings and set up their own study to check the radiation level of residents. The results showed residents received about the same level of radiation from living in Minamisoma for a year as from a chest X-ray.
Long-term exposure, though, is an issue for people living in Minamisoma.
Around 69,000 lived in Minamisoma before the disasters. That's closer to 60,000 today, according to city government estimates, but Sams said the hospital pegs the population at closer to 48,000.
Sams said he spoke with residents living in shelters. They have done much to make them into homes, he said, but the shelters are small, can house entire families and come with just a microwave, hot plate and toilet. The tribes were interested in understanding the government's emergency response to the tsunami and nuclear failure. Sams said an elderly woman considered the initial response swift and adequate, but since then no one has explained plans for what do in the long run.
Hill said several members dug into the nuts and bolts of the student exchange and questioned if there are better ways to host students and a better time than Round-Up.
The two communities predicated the exchanges on their respective festivals -- the Pendleton Round-Up and the Soma-Nomaoi, a four-day event in July that recreates a samurai battle more than 1,000 years old and features running horses at full tilt across a vast field. But Round-Up might not be the ideal time to host students because some locals leave town and many open their homes to friends and family.
Hill said members discussed the possibility of holding the exchange in July or August. Japanese students here in early August, of course, could partake in the Umatilla County Fair and get a hands-on experience with local culture, and the Farm-City Pro Rodeo would still provide a cowboy highlight.
Holding the exchange before September also would allow high school students to come and not miss crucial school days. The most recent Japanese students were all junior high-schoolers, who also lack the English ability of older students.
Hill said some of this could come up when Pendleton Mayor Phillip Houk discusses the trip and findings Tuesday night at city council.
Contact Phil Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0833.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.