State, fed governments seek court approval of new cleanup schedule for Hanford nuclear site

By Nicholas K. Geranios, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Court asked to OK new Hanford cleanup schedule

SPOKANE, Wash. — State and federal agencies asked a federal judge Wednesday to approve a new cleanup schedule for the Hanford nuclear reservation, the nation’s most polluted nuclear weapons site.

The motion filed by the U.S. Department of Energy and the state Department of Ecology would govern the complicated cleanup of underground storage tanks for the next four decades and allow federal courts to ensure the work is completed.

“This will ensure our continued progress as we work to meet our commitments to the state of Washington to protect the environment, the public and the Columbia River,” U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement.

A watchdog group opposed the decree, saying it delays cleanup work for too long.

Hanford stores over 53 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste in 177 underground tanks, many of which have leaked. The material is left over from the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons, and Hanford workers have already spent two decades on cleanup.

The new schedule envisions four more decades of work, which provides thousands of good-paying jobs in the Tri-Cities area of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco.

The motion asked U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle of Spokane to approve a consent decree for the tanks and for new milestones in the Tri-Party Agreement, an administrative order between Energy, Ecology, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which governs Hanford cleanup.

“We now have the full commitment of the federal government, and an enforceable federal court order, to ensure that the Hanford cleanup will stay on track,” Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire said.

“This administration is committed to protecting the environment in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the country,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in the news release.

The watchdog group said it will ask the judge to reject the decree because it delays emptying some leaking waste tanks until 2040.

“Hundreds of people went to hearings and commented, urging that the state not accept these lengthy delays,” said Gerry Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest. The group also wants the government to reject any plans for using Hanford as a national radioactive waste dump.

The consent degree was first announced in August 2009 after several years of negotiations, then was subject to comments from stakeholders.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said cleanup depends on consistent budgets from the federal government.

The consent decree arose from the settlement of a lawsuit the state Ecology Department filed against DOE that was later joined by the state of Oregon to force completion of key aspects of the Hanford cleanup, including:

—Remaining on schedule on construction of a plant to turn tank waste into a glass form for storage.

—Emptying the remaining older single-walled storage tanks at Hanford’s C Farm by 2014.

—Treatment of tank waste beginning in 2019 and ending by 2047.

—Emptying all single-walled tanks by 2040.

—Closing newer double-walled tank farms by 2052.

On the Web:

The consent decree and TPA modifications:

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