Washington state will sue federal government over Hanford

UPDATE: See added notes below

Gov. Chris Gregoire has run out of patience in dealing with the federal government, which has not lived up to its agreement to clean up nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Now, the state will battle the federal government in court.

I received a press release from the Governor’s Office moments ago. It contains this quote from Gregoire:

“In Washington state, we have been patient and reasonable in working with the federal agencies at Hanford,” Gregoire said. “Today, our patience has run out. The federal cleanup has been far too slow.

“In the past three years, the situation has gotten much worse. We now face—not years, not decades—but more than a century of delay. The most recent budget proposed by President Bush puts us on pace to empty one tank per year. At that rate, it will take 140 years to empty the worst of the remaining tanks. That’s not only absurd. It’s unconscionable. The people of Washington cannot stand for that, and will not stand for that.”

In 1989, the state and federal government reached agreement on a cleanup schedule that had a chance of preventing dangerous groundwater contamination in the Hanford region, including the Columbia River. The federal government, pleading poverty, has never lived up to the rate of progress promised in that agreement.

UPDATE: Wednesday, Nov. 26

Considering the increasing concern about nuclear waste at Hanford, there has been surprising little reaction to yesterday’s announcement by Gov. Chris Gregoire that this state will sue the federal government. For the moment, I’ll just add a few notes. Please read on:

First, I think an opinion piece by the Tri-City Herald on Nov. 18 says a lot. It was written as an open letter to President-Elect Barack Obama after the Bush administration announced further cutbacks in funding for the Hanford cleanup. It started this way:

Dear President-elect Obama,

Your expression of ignorance regarding the Hanford nuclear site during last spring’s campaign swing through Oregon has us worried.

Really worried.

The Bush administration had eight years to become intimate with Hanford’s environmental hazards, and still failed to deliver on the government’s commitment to clean up the mess.

We can’t afford backsliding while your administration figures out what’s going on at the nuclear site.

Just last week, we learned the Department of Energy notified Hanford regulators that 23 legal deadlines for cleanup are at risk because of the budget for fiscal 2009.

The deadlines are part of the Tri-Party Agreement, the detailed plan for cleanup hammered out by regulators and DOE more than 20 years ago. The document isn’t advisory, it’s a legally binding contract…

Most newspapers carried a version of the story by Associated Press reporter Shannon Dininny. The incoming administration has expressed a willingness to negotiate, which is what the Bush administration has always done.

Washington Department of Ecology has set up a Web page focusing on the lawsuit, adding to the existing page about nuclear waste.

Finally, to answer Sharon O’Hara’s question about how we know the waste storage tanks are in bad shape, the U.S. Department of Energy, Washington Department of Ecology and private consultants have been monitoring the integrity of the tanks. The most detailed information can be found in an environmental impact statement, which has been taken of the Department of Energy’s Web site for security reasons. Apparently it can still be found in select libraries.

Information copied from Ecology’s Web page on the Tank Waste Storage Project may add some clarity.

The TWS Project regulates how tank waste is treated and stored, ensures that the Department of Energy maintains the DSTs, prevents harmful releases to the environment, and conducts safe operations, governs the closure of SSTs, and governs the retrieval of waste from the SSTs and its transfer to the DSTs.

The Tank Waste Storage (TWS) Project oversees management of highly radioactive waste in 177 underground storage tanks at the Hanford Site. The tanks range from 50,000 to more than one million gallons in capacity. Most of the tanks (149) are single shell tanks (SSTs) that are well beyond their planned life expectancy of 20 years.

Out of these 149 SSTs, 67 have been declared known or assumed leakers that have released more than one million gallons of waste to the soil and groundwater. The released waste is now moving toward the Columbia River.

To provide safer storage for tank wastes, 28 double shell tanks (DSTs) were built. More than three million gallons of liquid waste has been moved from the SSTs into the DSTs. To date, there have been no leaks to the environment from the DSTs.

Eventually, the tank waste will be transferred to the Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) for vitrification and immobilization.

Back to the press release issued by the governor:

Washington state asks court to enforce federal cleanup at Hanford
For Immediate Release: November 25, 2008

RICHLAND – Gov. Chris Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna announced today that Washington state will file suit in U.S. District Court on Wednesday to compel the U.S. Department of Energy to complete the cleanup of 53 million gallons of highly toxic and radioactive waste buried in tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

“In Washington state, we have been patient and reasonable in working with the federal agencies at Hanford,” Gregoire said. “Today, our patience has run out. The federal cleanup has been far too slow. In the past three years, the situation has gotten much worse. We now face—not years, not decades—but more than a century of delay. The most recent budget proposed by President Bush puts us on pace to empty one tank per year. At that rate, it will take 140 years to empty the worst of the remaining tanks. That’s not only absurd. It’s unconscionable. The people of Washington cannot stand for that, and will not stand for that.”

Both Washington and Oregon depend on clean, safe water to support the economy. In the Washington counties south of Hanford, 25,000 companies rely on water to provide 280,000 jobs and a payroll of $9.5 billion—10 percent of the state’s economic activity. In Oregon, 32,000 companies along the Columbia River depend on clean water to provide 500,000 jobs with a payroll of $18 billion—30 percent of Oregon’s economic activity.

“The state negotiated in good faith for an acceptable change in the cleanup schedule,” McKenna said. “After 18 months of negotiations, the state and federal agencies reached agreement on work to be performed – and on a schedule. The cleanup schedule that we were prepared to agree to is realistic and technically achievable. It was the federal government’s insistence on unacceptable legal terms that made an out-of-court settlement impossible. We do not bring this suit lightly, but it’s time for a specific timeline, established and enforced by the courts, to clean up the Hanford site. We simply cannot wait any longer.”

The state officials said the Energy Department is grossly out of compliance with state and federal environmental laws and with the Tri-Party Agreement cleanup order, signed in 1989 by Washington State, the Energy Department, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The agreement, as amended, currently requires completing all treatment by the year 2028 and emptying all the single-shell underground tanks by 2018. The Energy Department acknowledges it won’t meet these requirements.

Consequently, the state lawsuit asks the court to establish and enforce specific new deadlines for emptying 142 single-shell tanks and for treating the 53 million gallons of hazardous and radioactive waste in all 177 underground tanks.

The state is also formally requesting that the federal agencies agree to implement new groundwater and soil cleanup deadlines to avoid further delays in taking essential environmental action around the Hanford site, especially next to the Columbia River. The state believes this work as well as other Hanford work covered within the Tri-Party Agreement can and must proceed while the lawsuit concerning treatment of the tank waste advances through the federal courts.

Gregoire said she welcomes the January arrival of President-elect Barack Obama in the White House, and is ready to work with the new Energy Secretary on finding solutions to the stalled cleanup.

“With the help our congressional delegation, and with a partner in the White House, I am hopeful that we can shift our focus from litigation to cleanup,” Gregoire said. “Right now, however, the litigation is necessary to protect our state and its citizens.”

Each passing day increases the risk of leakage and catastrophic tank failure at Hanford. There is a very real potential for the aging tanks to develop cracks, especially in the event of a strong earthquake. Each delay increases the risk to workers, the environment and more than a million people who live and work near the Columbia River downstream from Hanford.

One thought on “Washington state will sue federal government over Hanford

  1. “Each passing day increases the risk of leakage and catastrophic tank failure at Hanford. There is a very real potential for the aging tanks to develop cracks, especially in the event of a strong earthquake. Each delay increases the risk to workers, the environment and more than a million people who live and work near the Columbia River downstream from Hanford….”

    I’m curious to know who made that determination? Which nuclear waste experts?

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