Spokesman Review



Our View: Washington forced into lawsuit to speed up project

November 28, 2008

The U.S. Justice Department's position on the oft-delayed cleanup of Hanford Nuclear Reservation might as well have been, "So, sue us!"

And so the state of Washington will.

On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna announced pending legal action and recounted the state's frustrations with getting the federal government to hold up its end of the Tri-Party Agreement, which was signed by the state, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy in 1989.

Since then, the feds have offered one excuse after another for why a cleanup that was supposed to be finished in 2035 will continue long after that. Even after 19 years of missed deadlines, the state had agreed to new ones if the federal government would accept a consent decree that would make the new benchmarks enforceable in the courts. Gregoire said that U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman was amenable, but that the Justice Department would not sign off on that accountability measure.

Once it became clear that the feds were inflexible, the state had little choice but to sue. The other option was to sign off on new deadlines and changes without any way to make them happen. The state knows how that goes. Over the nearly 20-year lifespan of the Tri-Party Agreement, the state has agreed to more than 400 changes, yet an end to the project is nowhere in sight.

Meanwhile, 53 million gallons of radioactive waste is bubbling and belching in buried tanks. Sixty-seven of the single-shell tanks are confirmed to be leaking, which contributes to an underground plume that is expanding toward the nearby Columbia River. Of the original 177 tanks, 142 have not been cleared. At a pace of about one tank a year, the feds would wildly overshoot the original deadline for disposal, which was 2018.

The 2011 deadline for completion of a vitrification plant, which is designed to transform the toxic stew into glass logs for safer storage, has been pushed back to 2019.

Simply put, the economic and environmental health of the Northwest demands that the federal government place a higher priority on cleaning up Hanford. Contamination of the Columbia River would bring untold devastation.

The nation is indebted to this region, which sacrificed greatly during the Manhattan Project and the production of nuclear weapons. With a new administration comes the possibility for a settlement, rather than a drawn-out legal battle. But after so many broken promises, the state would be foolish to rely on hope. It must insist on enforcement.