In Our View: More Delays at Hanford

Inslee, Ferguson trying to convince feds to meet responsibilities on cleanup

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Friday's news about the deadbeat U.S. Department of Energy's obligations to clean up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was deeply discouraging, and two of Washington's top officials are leading the outrage parade.

As well they should, Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson were sharply critical of the feds' announcement that two more deadlines likely will be missed. That brings to four the number of missed milestones after a legally binding consent decree was reached in 2010. The decree came after Washington sued the DOE over continual foot-dragging in the cleanup of America's most contaminated nuclear site. Hanford is about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver, which is the largest city on the Columbia River with its downtown within a stone's throw of the river.

Inslee said the consent degree was "approved by a federal court with the understanding that all the requirements could be met." But a Thursday telephone call from Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz informed the governor that two deadlines are at substantial risk of being missed: the retrieval of waste from two aging single-shell tanks and the completed construction of the Low Activity Waste Facility.

Ferguson sounded more direct: "We expect the federal government to do everything within its power to avoid or minimize any possible delays in meeting all its legal and moral requirements to protect the health of our residents and the Columbia River. We are evaluating all our options to ensure those commitments are met." And, presumably, those options might include returning to court to force compliance with the consent decree.

Hanford's threat to this region's groundwater has been well-documented, but recently a different angle to this state-feds dispute has evolved: the battle of political rookies, so to speak. Inslee and Ferguson were both sworn in back in January, and Moniz was sworn in on May 21. All three likely are eager to prove their worth as high-profile public figures. And Moniz has his professional reputation at stake. As The Spokesman-Review of Spokane pointed out in a recent editorial, Moniz is a nuclear physicist, former undersecretary of energy and co-chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Future. "He gets the problem," the newspaper opined, "but solutions seem as elusive as the 'God Particle' considered fundamental to our understanding of the atom."

None of these political nuances, however, carry as much importance as the public health component of this issue. It is truly astounding that the beautiful Pacific Northwest for more than half a century has been shackled with the largest, sloppiest and most threatening radioactive waste dump in the nation. And it is even more aggravating -- not to mention dangerous -- that the feds' Hanford cleanup project has dragged on for decades with continual cost overruns and missed deadlines.

Hanford's planners back in the 1940s -- when the nation's top-secret atomic bomb project was under way -- might not have envisioned such a massive problem as this. But today, the federal government's dawdling is inexcusable. The 2010 consent decree was proceeded by a 1989 agreement regarding cleanup, yet there's been little meaningful progress. Buildings are still contaminated, groundwater is increasingly contaminated and tanks are leaking toxic materials. Washingtonians are about to find out just how much clout our new governor and attorney general actually possess, and we hope it is enough to bring the feds into compliance.