The news out of China reminds us of the Hanford Nuclear ReservationFor sheer revulsion, the story in the Sunday edition of The New York Times was hard to beat. It reported that rural Chinese were drinking water from a river that had turned black with pollution. Their town was rife with disease and death.

It seems that Chinese urbanites are demanding cleaner air and water. In response, the nation's leaders are exporting polluters from the cities to the countryside, where most of the nation's population resides.

The essence of this wretched report resembled stories that have emerged from Chernobyl, the site a Russian nuclear disaster. Forms of cancer have become common among the residents in the region of Chernobyl.

When the Berlin Wall fell and when the Soviet Union disintegrated, it became apparent that for decades the Communist regime had enabled a ghastly level of air and water pollution and environmental degradation. As a consequence, portions of Russia have become sacrifice zones.

There is a lesson that Americans may derive from the dark experience of the former Soviet Union as well as China. The free flow of information is essential to environmental progress.

America is not without its sacrifice zones. Our region contains the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The abysmal controls on radioactive waste at Hanford were abetted by an era in which the activities of the nuclear reservation were kept secret. Hanford's scientists effectively had immunity from oversight by Congress or Olympia, the capital of the state in which it resides.

Sloppiness and lax science will hide behind the wall of secrecy. That's another reason why open government and the free flow of information are essential to clean air and clean water.

One of the most troubling aspects of the Bush administration is its obsession with secrecy and its willingness to put certain bodies of information off limits or, in some cases, to prohibit scientists from collecting that information. That is why a legion of scientists, including many Nobel Prize winners, have openly criticized President Bush.

It is alarming that in 2004, American government leaders are imitating the worst aspects of totalitarianism. Hanford is living proof of what you get when scientists are allowed to operate in secrecy. Hanford's radioactive waste is seeping toward the Columbia River.


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