Time to play hardball about Hanford cleanup fiasco

The OlympianJune 20, 2013 

It’s time for the Washington and Oregon congressional delegations to start raising heck in Washington, D.C., over the botched cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson have already expressed their outrage after the federal Department of Energy recently announced it would miss two more cleanup deadlines. Now it’s time for our states’ federal lawmakers to start applying some serious pressure to end the DOE’s inexplicable foot-dragging.

The DOE has known since 1956 that the tanks were leaking. By 1968, the DOE had confirmed that a toxic sludge, which will remain radioactive for hundreds of years, was oozing from at least 12 of the aging tanks.

The cleanup began nearly a quarter-century ago. But after spending more than $36 billion, repeated technical glitches and project mismanagement have produced little more than delay after delay.

Washington state took the federal government to court three years ago over the slow progress in cleaning up and securing 56 million gallons of radioactive toxic waste brewing in 177 mostly obsolete underground storage tanks. Several of them are leaking as much as 1,000 gallons of waste every year, all of it slowly seeping toward the Columbia River.

Since the leaks were first discovered, experts estimate that more than 1 million gallons of waste have soaked into the soil.

That lawsuit ended with the 2010 Hanford Cleanup Consent Decree specifying requirements for the DOE to meet. The Energy Department has already missed two of the cleanup milestones in the decree, and it is now saying it will miss two more.

That’s unacceptable, as Inslee has said, and the people of Washington deserve answers about why these delays are occurring and how the DOE plans to catch up, as Ferguson as demanded.

Inslee should have some political capital to spend in the other Washington. He was originally elected to Congress in a district that spanned the Cascades and included the Hanford site. Ferguson has the power to initiate another federal lawsuit.

But Inslee and Ferguson are new in their jobs, as is the new energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, who visited Hanford for the first time Wednesday. It would help if the congressional delegations from Washington and Oregon joined together in a bipartisan and loud full-court press on the Obama administration and the DOE.

Everyone at the federal level seems to be missing a sense of urgency to complete the Hanford project. This is puzzling. One of the leaking tanks sits within 5 miles of the Columbia River, and the toxic waste trickling from it will reach the river’s banks within a decade or so. Downstream, more than 175,000 people rely on the Columbia for their drinking water.

How much clout does the Washington state congressional delegation really wield in Washington, D.C.? We urge lawmakers to find out. Based on the lack of progress at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the answer, so far, appears to be “not much.”

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