Our Voice: Matt McCormick's legacy includes community ties

Matt McCormick's departure provides an opportunity to reflect on Hanford cleanup and the site's future.

McCormick, manager of the Department of Energy Richland Operations Office, is retiring this month after 14 years at Hanford. Few people have had a bigger hand in shaping the course of cleanup at the former plutonium production complex.

McCormick came to Hanford in 2000 from DOE's Rocky Flats, Colo., cleanup site and was named manager in 2010.

It's easy to forget that there's more to Hanford cleanup than the vitrification plant. Several factors focus public attention on that project:

w The size of the mess it's designed to clean up -- 56 million gallons of toxic and radioactive wastes.

w Escalating costs -- from $5.5 billion in 2003 to $12.2 billion in 2006 and likely to go higher.

w And a shifting target date for startup -- the original Tri-Party Agreement deadline to start tests with real radioactive wastes was 2007.

But it's a mistake to lose sight of other important work at Hanford. Except for the tank farms and vitrification plant, which are the Office of River Protection's responsibility, most of DOE's environmental restoration efforts fall under the Richland Operations Office.

That office is responsible for the significant progress that has been made in removing contaminants from the groundwater at Hanford before it reaches the Columbia River. In all, 10 billion gallons of contaminated groundwater have been treated and 98 tons of contaminants removed. Just last year, Hanford's pump and treat systems removed two tons of contaminants from 1.9 billion gallons of groundwater. It's only a start, but a good one.

McCormick told the Herald's editorial board last week that he counts the removal of all weapons-grade plutonium from Hanford among the biggest accomplishments completed during his tenure.

The security required to safeguard that 4-million-ton stockpile of plutonium gobbled up resources that now go directly toward cleanup. More work is accomplished as a result.

He also experienced disappointments, of course. One of the biggest is the failure to remove the radioactive sludge from the K Basins near the Columbia River.

The work proved more complex than imagined, and most of the material remains in the concrete basins long after the work was scheduled to end.

But progress is expected there soon. Tests on new equipment for removing the sludge have been successful.

In the meantime, hundreds of buildings, some of them highly contaminated, have been torn down, and hundreds of waste sites have been dug up.

Workers have moved 7 million tons of contaminated soil away from the Columbia River to far safer, permanent disposal.

McCormick may be missed more for building bridges between DOE and the Tri-City community than his successful leadership of cleanup programs.

His support for community involvement goes beyond rhetoric. McCormick has kept the process moving for transferring 1,600 acres of surplus federal land at Hanford to the community for industrial development. That effort could be completed sometime next year.

Gary Petersen, Tri-City Development Council vice president of Hanford programs, has high praise for McCormick. "All I can say is really good things about Matt McCormick," Petersen told Herald reporter Annette Cary. "He's been a superb help to the community."

Hanford and the Tri-City area will benefit from McCormick's hard work for years to come, said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.

"Matt has not only successfully carried out the cleanup mission at Richland, he has also served as a tireless advocate for Hanford," Hastings said.

His successor will have a tough act to follow. Whoever fills the role will need to make it a priority to maintain the lines of communication with the community that McCormick has forged.