Washington sues over nuclear waste - Gregoire is asking for a halt to further shipments

Karen Dorn Steele
The Spokesman-Review Staff writer


Olympia, WA - Washington is suing the federal government to block more shipments of dangerous, long-lived radioactive nuclear waste to Hanford.

At an Olympia news conference with Gov. Gary Locke, Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire said she's "hopping mad" to have to spend money on litigation, but had no choice.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Spokane, comes after the U.S. Department of Energy refused to set a deadline to dispose of 78,000 55-gallon drums of similar nuclear trash already at Hanford -- most sitting in unlined trenches near the Columbia River.

DOE has refused to say how much more it intends to import to Hanford, but one agency briefing paper says it could be another 7,980 drums from 15 sites.

While the wastes are ultimately supposed to go to a disposal tomb in New Mexico, DOE hasn't said how long it plans to leave the nuclear discards at Hanford.

Washington officials -- already concerned about the slow pace of Hanford cleanup -- fear they'll be stuck with them forever.

7The first non-Hanford wastes, from Ohio and California, arrived in December and February. More are due to be shipped today and March 19.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the Justice Department, Gregoire is asking for a halt to further shipments by noon Friday. If not, she'll seek an injunction.

Transuranic wastes, including plutonium, contain radioactive elements with atomic numbers higher than uranium. Some are extremely dangerous and long-lived, requiring special machinery to protect workers when they are handled. They must be isolated from the environment for thousands of years.

Most were generated at the government's nuclear weapons factories, including Hanford, the worst-contaminated site in the nation.

Gregoire's suit, filed on behalf of the Washington Department of Ecology, seeks an injunction against more shipments until DOE complies with the National Environmental Policy Act and state hazardous waste laws.

NEPA requires a federal agency to describe the impacts of its action, including risks to human health and the environment.

In a 1998 record of decision on transuranic wastes, DOE said any future decisions on waste transfers would be subject to NEPA review. But the agency never followed through, the state's complaint says.

Gregoire said she was prepared to sue in December, but pressed for an agreement with DOE to process and eventually ship the 78,000 Hanford drums to a federal disposal site for transuranic wastes in New Mexico.

"The state lived up to its commitment to negotiate in good faith. The U.S. Department of Energy did not," Gregoire said.

Last weekend, DOE informed Gregoire it wouldn't commit to a firm schedule to dispose of the growing stockpile of wastes -- triggering the lawsuit.

DOE doesn't have to negotiate with Washington and can ship the wastes to Hanford at any time, said Joe Davis, spokesman for Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

"This is waste regulated by the federal government -- not the states," Davis said.

Washington's Democratic senators sided with Gov. Locke and Gregoire.

"Unfortunately, DOE has left the state no choice by backing away from its commitments. The failure of DOE to finalize an agreement with (Washington) calls into question DOE's long-term intentions regarding Hanford," Sen. Maria Cantwell said.


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