In Our View: Enough is Too Much

State justified in taking feds to court over foot-dragging on Hanford cleanup

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Gov. Jay Inslee must sometimes feel as though he’s living in a Looney Tunes cartoon, where exasperated characters often exclaim, “Enough is too much!”

Such is the status of Washington’s dealings with the federal government regarding cleanup efforts at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. For far too long, the feds have been dragging their feet on the project, ignoring court-ordered deadlines and giving scant attention to serious environmental concerns. Because of that, last week Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced that the state will not provide another deadline extension, triggering a process that could land the issue in front of a federal court. That decision is not ideal, but it is necessary, forced by inaction on the part of the federal government.

Built during the 1940s to process plutonium for the Manhattan Project that led to the first atomic bomb, Hanford now stands as a monument to abdicated responsibility. In 1989, the state Department of Ecology, U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed an agreement that called for the site to be cleaned up by 2019. With little progress being made, the court-ordered Hanford Cleanup Consent Decree was issued in 2010, calling for all radioactive waste to be retrieved by 2040 and treated by 2047. Again, little progress was demonstrated.

All of that led Inslee and Ferguson to collectively put their foot down, triggering a 30-day period in which they may file a motion in the U.S. Federal District Court for Eastern Washington. Undoubtedly, the thought of state taxpayers suing federal taxpayers over the issue is not the preferred solution. But sometimes, enough is too much.

Hanford holds more than 50 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste within shouting distance of the Columbia River, about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver. The waste is stored in 177 underground tanks, including many single-walled units that date to the 1940s and have leaked (or, in the feds’ bureaucratic lingo, have experienced a “decrease of liquid level.”) There also are concerns about 28 newer, double-walled tanks, one of which was found to be leaking in 2012.

The eventual plan is to develop a vitrification plant that will turn the waste into a glass-like substance that is less volatile and make it easier to store. But that process has been beset by missed deadlines, cost overruns and a lack of progress. As Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last year, “It is time for the Department to stop hiding the ball and pretending that the situation at Hanford is being effectively managed.”

As the federal government has been slow to address the issues, negotiations between state officials and representatives from the U.S. Department of Energy have been ongoing. But last spring, Inslee intimated that the federal proposals failed on two counts — the short-term and the long-term — and state officials said the most recent recommendations lacked “specificity, accountability, and enforceability.”

Adding to concerns is the fact that Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is retiring after 10 terms in Congress. Hastings long has been a noisy advocate for action on Hanford, and all members of the congressional delegations from both Washington and Oregon should make it a priority to pick up the banner in his absence. In the meantime, the state is left with few good options, the best of which is taking the federal government to court. Sometimes, officials simply have to declare that enough is too much.