Our Voice: DOE should commit to new K Basin deadline

Scolding the Department of Energy for its poor handling of cleanup issues at Hanford is getting tiresome.

It’s one thing for DOE to miss deadlines, which happens often enough, but not providing a new work timeline is especially frustrating.

The latest missed deadline was Sept. 30 when DOE was supposed to begin moving radioactive sludge from the K West Basin. The day came and DOE asked at the last minute for an extension. But they made the request without providing any idea of when they could get going on the project. That non-commitment to a new schedule angered officials with the Environmental Protection Agency and they denied the request and began assessing fines.

Good for the EPA.

Normally, we don’t agree with one government agency fining another government agency because it shifts funds for projects back into the U.S. Treasury, which is not a good use of taxpayer money. But DOE needs somebody to force it to come up with a plan and commit to a new schedule for removing the sludge. Assessing financial penalties is probably the only way to get DOE’s attention.

The technology is in place and money was allocated for sludge removal this year, so it is puzzling why DOE is dragging its feet on the project. U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings sent a letter to DOE reminding it that the EPA has said sludge removal is “one of the highest Hanford cleanup priorities” and that Congress provided money for it.

Hastings asked DOE how it plans to spend the remaining sludge-removal money for fiscal year 2015 and how much will be needed in fiscal year 2016, including the cost of delays. In addition, the EPA is questioning why DOE did not propose an extension until the last minute.

DOE’s reluctance to provide a new plan for when it will begin work at the K Basins gives the appearance it is not taking the sludge removal project seriously enough.

The delay is unacceptable. The K West area is 400 yards from the Columbia River, so removal of this particular radioactive waste is critical. DOE has said before that it has finished testing the sludge retrieval system and all the issues raised by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board have been addressed. Also, the engineering is complete to safely transport the sludge containers to a holding plant.

With that much technical progress made, DOE needs to get going on the last steps to complete the job.

Now the agency faces fines by the EPA of up to $10,000 a week. An extension agreement likely will be worked out, but it is a shame it had to come to this. It is hard enough to get money for Hanford cleanup without DOE wasting it on paying fines.