Opinion: Hanford, state dispute needs permanent fix

June 12th, 2003

Tri-City Herald

Richland, WA - The dispute that stopped nearly all cleanup work at Hanford last month may see some resolution Friday.

That's the day a controversial clause in a state Department of Ecology compliance order is scheduled to go back into effect. The last time that clause -- a single sentence in a 14-page document -- was in force, the Department of Energy's response was to virtually shut down Hanford.

Fortunately, the state stayed the clause for a month to give state and federal officials time to do what the Energy Department should have done in the first place -- seek clarification and, if needed, revision.

Now, negotiators' time is up.

So far, not much has been said publicly about the talks between state Ecology and Energy Department officials. The two sides may be closer to an agreement or even further apart.

Let's hope that no news equals good news in this case. The future of Hanford cleanup depends on whether the state and federal governments can cooperate. That's not hyperbole.

We don't have to wait until Friday to learn that the disintegrating relationship between the state and Energy Department already is threatening progress at the site.

The efforts to resolve disagreements over the state's compliance order are a bellwether on DOE's ability to begin fixing the mounting political mess at Hanford.

The optimistic view is that the problems with the state are a rift that might soon be repaired. Some agreement by Friday's deadline could help make that view more credible.

Unfortunately, it seems more realistic to describe recent events as the thin edge of a wedge that is ready to split open the fragile coalition of stakeholders.

Until this year, despite sometimes heated disagreement over how to proceed with work at the site, the state and DOE had avoided a lawsuit over cleanup.

That changed soon after talks broke down this winter over Hanford's role in handling of the nation's transuranic wastes -- thousands of tons of trash contaminated with plutonium and other long-lived isotopes.

On March 4, the state filed a federal lawsuit to stop DOE shipments of transuranic wastes to Hanford until a legal timetable for removal is worked out.

Once the line was crossed, it didn't take long for the lawyers to pile on.

On April 2, several environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit to bar transuranic waste shipments from Hanford. On April 9, DOE filed its own lawsuit, charging the state doesn't have the authority to enforce deadlines for transuranics.

Earlier this month, the Yakama Nation sent a notice that it intends to sue DOE in 60 days over Hanford's overall cleanup plans.

And this week, a coalition of environmental groups launched a petition drive that aims to get an initiative on the state ballot that would ban transuranic waste shipments and require other changes in cleanup plans.

The disputes over transuranic wastes and the state's compliance order are technically unrelated, but both have the same root cause -- a growing distrust about the Energy Department's intent.

The mounting opposition in the Northwest ought to make the urgency of the situation clear, even to folks in Washington, D.C. Without state validation of cleanup activities, the Energy Department is headed back to the days when support for Hanford didn't reach much beyond the work force.

If Friday doesn't bring a step back from the brink, we remain at risk for a fall.


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