Our Voice: 'Dysfunction' at Hanford doesn't alter federal government's responsibility

We've received some criticism about our decision to publish the story, "Hanford cleanup effort called a dysfunctional mess," by Rebecca Laflure of the Center for Public Integrity in the Nov. 18 edition of the Herald.

Herald editors didn't take the decision lightly. The article we ran was factually accurate but contained two major flaws that gave us pause.

First, the story didn't break any new ground. Regular readers of the Herald weren't likely to find anything new in the rehashing of problems that have plagued construction of the vitrification plant.

The even bigger problem is that the article leaves the impression that the vit plant, where Hanford's high level nuclear wastes are destined to be turned into glass logs, is Hanford's cleanup program. Yes, it's certainly the elephant in the room -- in terms of costs and mission -- but other crucial cleanup work is ongoing.

Ultimately, Herald editors decided that despite the story's flaws, Herald readers deserved to know how this landmark project in our backyard is being portrayed on a national scale.

The story reached nationwide, republished in newspapers and on websites. Our readers shouldn't have to go searching elsewhere to see what others are reading about the Hanford cleanup.

The Herald's newsroom carefully reviewed the article before publication and made some changes to add clarity or prevent misperceptions.

Those started with simply changing the lead paragraph to attribute the "dysfunctional mess" conclusion to "critics" rather than stating it as a fact.

Our newsroom's changes made it clearer that the technical issues were confined to the vit plant, not spread across all Hanford cleanup as the story implied.

Because the story largely relied on what whistleblower Walter Tamosaitis claimed in court documents, Herald editors thought it important to add that the three lawsuits he had filed had been dismissed before going to trial and now are under appeal.

We also made it clear that Tamosaitis, when laid off this fall, had been given a standard release form to sign that's given to all laid off employees eligible for severance, releasing URS from liability. The story implied Tamosaitis was treated differently than other laid off employees.

The newsroom's editing changes strengthened the story, but couldn't change the fact that the focus on the vit plant's problems painted an incomplete picture.

We're as concerned as anyone about the trouble at the vit plant, and particularly worry about the potential for those problems to create further delays in treating 56 million gallons of nuclear and chemical waste in underground tanks buried near the Columbia River.

The federal government has a moral and legal obligation to deal with the mess left in our backyard from the production of nuclear weapons. No amount of dysfunction diminishes that responsibility.

But it's important to not only focus on the work that's left to do, but to also acknowledge what's been accomplished with the billions of dollars taxpayers have poured into the cleanup program.

The 586-square-mile footprint of active cleanup at Hanford has been reduced to a 160-square-mile footprint of active cleanup remaining.

One of the most dangerous and challenging cleanup efforts -- dealing with 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel in the leaky K Basins on the banks of the Columbia River -- has been completed.

About 20 tons of leftover plutonium in the Plutonium Finishing Plant have been recovered and shipped off site, 823 waste sites have been remediated, 399 facilities demolished, 15.3 million tons of soil and debris have been removed, six defunct defense reactors were put into a safe, stable condition known as a cocoon, and 8.4 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater treated, with 68 tons of contamination removed.

The American taxpayers have no choice but to continue paying for Hanford cleanup. It's part of the cost of winning World War II and the Cold War.

But Americans should also know that they are getting something for the cleanup dollars they've invested.