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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: No Quarrel on Hanford

No one of any party could oppose the cleanup of the most contaminated U.S. site, right?

The Columbian
Published: October 21, 2015, 6:01am

Amid the divisive atmosphere of Washington, D.C., environmental concerns often rank among the most contentious of issues. The mere mention of climate change or carbon caps or the Environmental Protection Agency can turn the most sedate of gatherings into a partisan conflagration.

But if Democrats and Republicans wish to find some middle ground, some common cause, some room for agreement, allow us to offer four simple words: The Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Yes, the nuclear waste site in south-central Washington, near the Columbia River about 200 miles upstream from Vancouver, provides the ideal opportunity for bipartisanship. After all, a desire to clean up the nation’s most contaminated site should not be an issue of partisanship, should it?

An issue of incompetence? An issue of indifference? An issue of negligence? Sure, Hanford has been each of those things for the federal government over the past quarter-century; but today it offers a chance for Democrats and Republicans to work together and demonstrate an ability to actually accomplish something big.

That hasn’t been the case in recent years, and one of the results of a dysfunctional Congress has been a disgraceful inattention to Hanford, a site that was developed during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bombs. As The (Everett) Herald wrote editorially last year: “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.”

Among the issues were the actions of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., as Senate Majority Leader. Reid repeatedly blocked votes that could have resulted in a national nuclear depository at Yucca Mountain in his home state. As Washington Post columnist George Will wrote last year: “Rather than nuclear waste being safely stored in the mountain’s 40 miles of tunnels 1,000 feet underground atop 1,000 feet of rock, more than 160 million Americans live within 75 miles of one or more of the 121 locations where 70,000 tons of waste are stored.” Never mind that Congress and President Reagan agreed to the development of the Yucca Mountain site some three decades ago.

Yet today, there is reason for hope. Reid no longer holds sway in the Senate, as Republicans took over as the majority party earlier this year. And Hanford has a new overlord, as Monica Regalbuto was confirmed in August as the Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for environmental management. Among her duties is oversight of cleanup efforts at Hanford and other contaminated Department of Energy sites.

That represents a difficult task, as the decades of thumb-twirling have made the problems at Hanford even more problematic. A 2008 lawsuit filed by the State of Washington led to the court-mandated 2010 Hanford Cleanup Consent Decree, but that has resulted in sparse action. More recently, the state filed suit against the Department of Energy and the private contractor that manages storage tanks at the site, alleging inadequate protection for workers at Hanford. Over the years, billions of dollars have been spent on minimal cleanup efforts, and dozens of tanks have leaked radioactive waste.

Through its inaction, the federal government has imperiled one of the nation’s major waterways and the residents of two states. That means it is past time for both Democrats and Republicans in Congress to pay attention. The issue of nuclear waste, after all, is one that should transcend party lines.