In Our View: Feds Must Act on Hanford

Energy Department continues to stall on its obligation to clean up radioactive waste

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To say that Gov. Jay Inslee was underwhelmed might be an understatement.

"Unfortunately, the draft that was shown to us this morning did not contain the comprehensiveness and level of detail that the state has requested for months from our federal partners," the governor said in a statement after meeting with U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and his department team.

The topic? The Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Tri-Cities. The gist of the meeting? More of the same. For decades now, the federal government has perpetually been a day late in dealing with Hanford; on Monday, the feds once again showed up a dollar short.

"We made it clear last month we were expecting a comprehensive plan for a path forward, and I was disappointed with the scope of the federal government's approach," state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said after the meeting.

The federal government repeatedly has demonstrated a lack of concern over the more than 50 million gallons of highly radioactive waste that is stored at Hanford within shouting distance of the Columbia River. Decades ago, Hanford played a key role in the development of the atomic bomb, and now the people of Washington and Oregon are deserving of some urgency when it comes to dealing with the waste and with tanks that are leaking at an increasingly alarming rate.

A 2008 lawsuit led to the 2010 Hanford Cleanup Consent Decree, and since then the feds have treated it as just another item on a "honey-do" list, effectively saying, "Yeah, yeah, we'll get to it." Sorry, but weak reassurances are not enough; the time has come for action. As The (Everett) Herald wrote editorially this week: "If Hanford and its 56 million gallons of highly radioactive crud sat on the Potomac and not the Columbia River, care and attention to its cleanup might be a wee more pronounced."

Last year, Moniz's department informed the state that it would be unable to meet two 2014 deadlines spelled out in the consent decree: Retrieval of waste from two of Hanford's single-walled storage tanks, and construction of a Low Activity Waste Facility. Other deadlines have been ignored.

As U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, wrote in a letter last month to Moniz: "The citizens living along the banks of the Columbia River deserve to know the full story of what is happening with the Hanford tanks. … It is time for the Department (of Energy) to stop hiding the ball and pretending that the situation at Hanford is being effectively managed."

That is what led to Moniz's visit this week to Olympia. He should have come prepared with a plan for action rather than a half-hearted attempt at appeasement. Inslee said the federal proposal failed on two counts: The short-term and the long-term. Aside from that, we'll assume it was adequate.

In short, the situation likely leaves Washington with no choice but to seek court action. Ferguson said: "My legal team and I will be reviewing the information we received today and continuing our work to provide all available legal options to our clients -- the governor and the Department of Ecology -- to enforce the obligations set forth in our 2010 consent decree and the Tri-Party agreement requiring the U.S. Dept. of Energy to clean up the Hanford site."

That is the bottom line. The federal government has millions of gallons of radioactive waste sitting in Washington, and it has a court-ordered obligation to clean it up. Anything short of that will be underwhelming.