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In Our View: Congress, Fix Hanford

Threats of contamination impact residents of Clark County

The Columbian
Published: February 25, 2013, 4:00pm

No city larger than Vancouver has its downtown core on the banks of the Columbia River, the largest U.S. river to empty into the Pacific Ocean. Water from seven states and one Canadian province flows past us from diverse ecosystems ranging from deserts to rainforests.

Therefore, Clark County residents take seriously any threats to the quality of the Columbia River. About 200 miles upstream, radioactive waste is leaking from underground storage tanks at Hanford nuclear reservation, the most contaminated nuclear site in the country. On Friday, state and federal officials announced the threat to underground water systems is worse than previously thought. The number of leaking tanks has risen to six, and more compromised containers are expected to be found among the 177 tanks just north of Tri-Cities.

This is not the first time The Columbian has complained about the plethora of problems among federal government officials including delays, cost overruns and confusion over emerging technologies for cleaning up the site. But a couple of points bear repeating:

This problem in no way belongs to Washington, Oregon or any other state. The federal government created this threat to our river system seven decades ago when the Manhattan Project of World War II started producing plutonium to support the United States’ nuclear weapons arsenal. Already, the feds spend more than $2 billion annually trying to clean up Hanford. But this is not the kind of economic development anyone had in mind; 53 million gallons of toxic waste are stored at Hanford.

The importance of haste in addressing this problem is continually ignored by the U.S. Department of Energy and other federal agencies. As U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told Energy Secretary Steven Chu in 2011, the Hanford cleanup “is a legal obligation … a moral obligation … a real obligation.”

Clarion calls of concern continue from our two states’ elected officials, and there is a ray of hope that Northwesterners’ clout in Congress on this matter might increase. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Last week, Wyden said he will seek a greater commitment to cleaning up Hanford during confirmation hearings for the successor to Chu, who has resigned.

But it will take more than just a commitment. The feds have been “committed” to protecting the Columbia River for decades. Yet scant progress has been made toward actually solving the problem. Hope fades now as Congress becomes so bitterly divided that it can’t solve the most easily fixable problems. If and when Congress moves beyond gridlock might be a good time to pick up the pace on cleaning up Hanford. But a far better time would be now. Although there is no indication of actual contamination of underground water systems, there could easily come the day when everyone wishes a more expeditious plan had been enacted.

Thus, the question is clear to members of Congress: Although you’re unwilling to listen to each other, are you willing to listen to the people of the Pacific Northwest?