State asks court to enforce federal cleanup of toxic waste
Washington Governor Chris Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna announced that Washington state will file suit in U.S. District Court 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...
RICHLAND, WA, Nov. 25, 2008 -- Washington Governor Chris Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna announced that Washington state will file suit in U.S. District Court 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.