Barry's Mutant Ants Really Bug Tri-Cities Folks

On its way to Dave Barry, arguably the nation's best-known humor columnist, is an invitation from mayors living in the shadow of the Hanford nuclear reservation, irrefutably the nation's most contaminated nuclear site.

Call it an act of public relations.

Call it the act of people who are thin-skinned.

Call it the proper thing to do, which is how folks in Southeast Washington explain their invitation for Barry to come have a look around.

Barry has never been to the Tri-Cities, and when contacted last week he hadn't a clue as to where Pasco, Richland and Kennewick are. But now that he knows, he said if there were ever three cities that should be together, he most certainly would've picked these.

What's all the fuss?

Barry's next column - which appears in today's Seattle Times - mentions Hanford.

Specifically, Hanford's radioactive ants.

"I start to worry when officials tell me not to worry," his column begins. In this case, he's worried about assurances that Hanford is safe.

In his very Barry way, the columnist describes his fear that one day soon giant mutant ants will be marching toward California, plotting nasty things. To defend the country, Barry suggests axing billion-dollar missiles for something much more practical: one giant Twinkie (to entice the ants) and one 18,000-pound shoe (to stomp them).

Last week, the Tri-City Herald ran a story on the column. The writer was most offended, and so were officials quoted in his story.

"The piece doesn't paint a flattering picture of the Tri-Cities," the story reads. "Nor is it complimentary of all the hard work and groundbreaking science going on at the federal Hanford site."

How, laments the paper, could Barry have failed to mention "the pristine Hanford Reach; the winning Americans hockey team; the booming construction going on behind Columbia Center mall."

All around the three cities - and a fourth, because West Richland has joined the image crusade - the grumbling grew.

" `The site glows like a Budweiser sign,' " Michael Turner said recently, quoting a line from the column. "That's a little bit more than inaccurate."

Turner is a communications specialist with Fluor Daniel Hanford Inc., the primary contractor cleaning up the Hanford nuclear reservation, which was built during World War II to produce plutonium.

"Everybody should take things in good fun," Turner agreed. But the fact is, the region's 200,000 residents have a certain affection for Hanford. They know it's a radioactive, contaminated place. But it's home, he said.

Barry's stereotype ignores the reality, officials protested: Spent-fuel basins have been cleaned. So have some underground tanks. One of the reactors is in safe-storage mode. Nine defense-production reactors have been deactivated.

"The cleanup is moving along," Turner said.

At Fluor Daniel last week, the public-relations team debated writing an op-ed piece to counter the upcoming Barry column. But some didn't want to appear "easily offended."

The Tri-City Visitors and Convention Bureau, meanwhile, promptly contacted mayors, arranging a jointly written invitation.

"The reality is that the real story, so to speak, is that the community has many positive attributes, like a great quality of life," said Kris Watkins, the bureau's president.

Some of the country's top scientists are working at Hanford, she said. There are some 40 wineries, eight golf courses, the Columbia River. And more than 300 days of sunshine a year, Watkins added.

The radioactive ants were first discovered last fall, along with radioactive flies and gnats. The bugs, which authorities call "contaminated" not radioactive, were eliminated. But on a regular basis, Turner said, officials find contaminated tumbleweeds.

"I think there are so many cultural attractions in the Tri-Cities," Barry said from his Miami office. "It's a well-known fact. The cultural centers of the world - Paris, London and the Tri-Cities.

"Personally, I'm leading a group of 1,000 Miamians to the Tri-Cities in case we encounter an ant the size of a VW Bug."

Florangela Davila's phone-message number is 206-464-2916. Her e-mail address is: