Our Voice: State too quick to threaten consent decree provision over Hanford cleanup

April 22, 2014 

WESF Workers Hanford

CH2M HILL workers, inside the Waste Encapsulation Storage Facility, rearrange highly radioactive capsules to distribute heat generated by the radioactive material in the capsules. CH2M HILL Plateau Remediation Company is managing the Department of Energy facility and the safe storage of nearly 2,000 capsules containing the highly radioactive isotopes.

COURTESY DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

The state's frustration over the pace of Hanford cleanup is justified, but forcing the issue back into the courts is risky and premature.

The Department of Energy informed the state that it is at risk of not meeting the terms of a court-enforced consent decree, requiring the vitrification plant to be fully operating in 2022.

Construction of the plant, which is being built to treat up to 56 million gallons of toxic and radioactive waste held in underground tanks, has been delayed by unresolved technical issues.

Washington and DOE drafted plans to amend the consent decree, but each rejected the other's proposal last week.

That should have been expected. The two proposals contain major conflicts on approach and schedule. But the next step ought to be an intensive attempt to find a middle ground without involving the courts.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson told the Herald that the state is considering taking the next legal step as early as this week.

That means triggering a clause in the consent decree that allows either side to call for 40 days of negotiations if no proposal is accepted. If negotiations are unsuccessful, the state could go back to federal court to ask it to order DOE to implement the state's plan, the state said.

The courts aren't necessarily the best alternative for dealing with environmental issues. Look at the legal battle over salmon recovery in the Columbia River as an example. That 22-year fight has been great for lawyers but lousy for fish.

The Tri-City Development Council recently sent Gov. Jay Inslee and Ferguson a letter, outlining a host of cleanup projects that could suffer if the state continues with its singular focus on tank wastes.

One likely outcome of the state's current path is for a federal judge to set firm deadlines for progress on the vitrification plant, forcing DOE to shift funding from important work along the Columbia River.

TRIDEC's list of projects is long, but two of the more crucial environmental projects along the river corridor include removing 27 cubic meters of highly radioactive sludge from the K West Basin and safer storage for 1,900 capsules, containing 53 million curies of cesium and strontium, housed at the Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility (WESF). DOE's Inspector General recently warned that an earthquake could severely damage the aging facility.

"This 'other' cleanup, under the Richland Operations Office, is critical to reducing the near-term risks that threaten people and the Columbia River," TRIDEC wrote.

It's a reasonable position, and the state ought to fully explore it before making an irrevocable move like starting the 40-day countdown in the consent decree.

The governor is pushing for eight new underground storage tanks, a stance partly influenced by a double-shell tank that leaked radioactive liquids into the secondary shell.

There may be better ways to deal with the problem, which isn't posing an immediate threat to the public or the environment. For instance, take the $800 million the new tanks might cost, and put it toward getting the vitrification plant operational. That could help speed a permanent fix for the tank wastes.

Inslee and other state officials haven't done all the homework needed to determine what's the best course for the Tri-Cities and other communities downstream from Hanford.

The next logical step for the state is a fact-finding mission, rather than the courts. The issue is important enough, of course, to bring the state's top players to the Tri-Cities. At a minimum, the list should include Inslee, Ferguson and Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon.

They need to get a firsthand look at the K Basins, WESF, tank farms and other critical cleanup projects, rather than solely relying on their experts at the site.

Top state officials need to hold a public hearing to learn the community's priorities for cleanup.

It's great to have the option to force a 40-day negotiating period, as outlined in the consent decree, but the state needs to slow down before going there. Once that bullet leaves the barrel, there's no getting it back.

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