Our Voice: State, DOE need to continue negotiating on tank wastes

The state and Department of Energy's recent decision to continue talks on Hanford cleanup rather than involve a federal judge was the best move under the circumstances.

We argued in April against the state invoking the 40-day dispute resolution period that's allowed under the consent decree.

But the state launched the resolution process, putting the talks on a dangerous path. Once the initial resolution period ended June 2, either the state or DOE could have asked a federal judge to intervene.

Fortunately, the two sides agreed to continue talking, but that extension ends Friday, and no one is sure exactly what happens if the court takes over the dispute. At a minimum, it would almost certainly delay progress at Hanford while a judge deliberates.

The consent decree resolved a federal lawsuit brought by the state against DOE when it could not meet an earlier set of deadlines, including starting to operate the vitrification plant in 2011.

DOE has informed the state that it is at risk of not meeting the terms of the 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.

The state and DOE drafted plans to amend the consent decree, but each rejected the other's proposal. If they don't reach an agreement by Friday, another extension is the best alternative.

The courts are a risky place to take environmental issues, we said in April, and pointed to the legal battle over salmon recovery in the Columbia River as an example. That 22-year fight has been great for lawyers but actions that could help fish have been stalled by the endless dispute.

The situation at Hanford is at least as complex, and progress at the site could be put on hold while the dispute wends its way through the federal courts.

We also worry that the state's singular focus on tank wastes could divert resources from other crucial environmental projects along the Columbia River corridor, including cleanup of 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.

We also worry that if the vit plant dispute winds up in federal court, the public will be locked out of the process.

The Hanford Advisory Board was designed to ensure that the public is represented on cleanup decisions. The 31 members represent seven Mid-Columbia governments, Tri-City business interests, union and nonunion Hanford workers, local and regional environmental interests, the public health community, Native American tribes, Oregon residents, regional universities and the public at-large.

The diverse board's involvement is essential to maintaining public confidence in Hanford cleanup. Don't push Hanford cleanup into the hands of the court and leave HAB and the rest of the public divorced from the process. Eroding public support for cleanup will jeopardize the federal allocation of the billions of dollars needed to complete the job.

Keep talking but leave the lawyers out of it, we said in April. It still is good advice.