Land transfer questioned

January 21st, 2004

By Annette Cary Herald staff writer

Benton County is questioning how the Department of Energy is handling a change that is expected to result in the loss of millions of dollars in federal money that goes to local governments near the Hanford nuclear reservation.

DOE expects to transfer about 257 square miles of Hanford land to the Interior Department by October 2005. The land already has been managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Interior Department in recent years as part of the new Hanford Reach National Monument.

But when Interior assumes ownership of the land, it no longer will be included in a DOE program that provides payments to local governments for land that is taken off local tax rolls.

Now about 25 governments in Benton, Franklin and Grant counties such as schools, ports and libraries receive about $4 million annually from DOE in Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, money.

Benton County entities would continue to receive about $1.7 million in annual payments for Hanford land not included in the transfer.

Rather than making up the difference from lost PILT payments, Interior is expected to pay only about $50,000 total annually to Grant, Franklin and Benton counties.

Few figures were available Tuesday, but the loss in annual payments appears to be about $2 million. Some entities would be particularly hard hit. The small Wahluke School District, for instance, could lose most of the approximately $300,000 it receives annually.

"Benton County expects an environmental assessment to be conducted for the proposal to transfer the Hanford Reach National Monument properties out of Department of Energy ownership and into Department of the Interior ownership," said a letter to DOE signed Tuesday by Leo Bowman, chairman of the Benton County commissioners.

A formal environmental assessment would require DOE to take comments from the public. But DOE is considering skipping the assessment because use of the property would remain unchanged.

"I think we need to go through the formal process to determine that," said Jeff Van Pelt, manager of the Umatilla tribes' cultural resources protection program. "It's like it's being pushed through."

DOE officials will meet with representatives of the Umatillas and likely other tribes todayto discuss the process. They expect to make a decision by Feb. 2 whether to skip an environmental assessment.

The Umatillas are concerned about whether Fish and Wildlife will have the resources to protect the land, will continue to consult with the tribes as DOE has done and will allow access to Rattlesnake Mountain and other places important to tribal heritage.

Van Pelt said he's concerned that Fish and Wildlife's mission is to manage fish and wildlife, not cultural resources. The Hanford site was a major crossroads and salmon fishing area for several Mid-Columbia tribes and contains historical and religious sites and many American Indian artifacts.

Benton County also is concerned about protection of cultural and historic properties, how emergency services will be provided and matters such as weed abatement and road maintenance.

"As simple as it may sound for one agency of the federal government to transfer title to another agency, this proposal is not routine, nor without an abundance of consequences and issues that need to be addressed comprehensively by the community," Bowman wrote in the county's letter.

Greg Hughes, the Fish and Wildlife Service's project leader for the Hanford Reach National Monument, confirmed that Interior payments to local government entities would be far less than payments now made by DOE.

"We're very empathetic to what that means to some counties," Hughes said.

DOE is considering transferring ownership of the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve first. The ALE land served as a security buffer on the western side of Hanford when the nuclear reservation began producing plutonium in the 1940s and remains largely untouched by humans.

Next, DOE plans to transfer the McGee Ranch in the northwestern corner of Hanford and the Wahluke Slope along the Franklin and Grant counties side of the Columbia River. Both transfers would be completed in the next 21 months under current plans.

Fish and Wildlife only plans to accept land free of contamination, Hughes said.

He also believes the agency has the resources to care for the Reach.

"We know we can do a good job," he said. "We are under the same federal laws to protect resources."



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