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Aug. 19, 2022

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In Our View: Fed’s cleanup delays at Hanford exasperating

The Columbian
Published:

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!”

That was what The Columbian wrote editorially about the federal government’s lax cleanup efforts at Hanford — in 2014. Now, eight years later, the exasperation lingers.

“As the earliest possible date for cleanup continues to extend farther into the future, the harms to the surrounding communities and the danger of catastrophic impacts to the Pacific Northwest are occurring right now,” Inslee wrote in a May 23 letter to Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Biden White House.

The danger is clear. There are 149 single-shell tanks at least 58 years old holding radioactive waste underground, the governor writes; that is far beyond the 20- to 30-year lifespan that was expected for the tanks. At least two of those tanks are known to be leaking, with radioactive waste and other hazardous waste seeping into the ground.

Additionally, five years ago, a tunnel storing highly contaminated equipment partially collapsed, and the collapse of a parallel tunnel was averted at great expense two years later.

As Inslee writes: “If the idea of investing in the cleanup today is unpalatable, consider this — whether calamity comes in the form of a release of radiation, groundwater contamination reaching the Columbia River, harmful exposures to workers at the site, or something else, the bill will eventually come due. When it does, those who pay the price will be the tribes, farmers, communities and all of us who rely on the Columbia River.”

That could include the people of Clark County, which sits about 200 miles downstream from the nation’s most contaminated radioactive waste site.

Inslee has asked the Biden administration to request $3.76 billion for Hanford cleanup in fiscal 2024, an increase from its current request of $2.52 billion for fiscal 2023.

In truth, more is needed, with expenses growing through decades of underfunding. One presidential administration after another has given short shrift to the federal government’s duty to clean up the site and protect the people, lands and waters of the Northwest.

Washington did its part in hosting Hanford and producing much of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Now the nation must do its part to clean up the mess it left behind. “The current posture of the federal government — to minimally fund the site while costs skyrocket and the odds of catastrophic infrastructure failure increase — cannot be the answer,” Inslee writes.

Much work has been done over the decades at Hanford. But it has not been enough. As time passes, potential costs and the danger involved increase dramatically. “Each year that we delay compliant investment in Hanford Site cleanup, we must spend more to shore up failing infrastructure against immediate calamity,” Inslee writes.

Elected officials at both the state level and in Congress long have sounded the alarm about Hanford, and several lawsuits have sought to hold the federal government accountable. But until a vast federal response that includes plans for a national nuclear repository gains traction, Washington residents, fisheries and agriculture remain endangered.

The feds have had plenty of time to provide more than lip-service regarding Hanford. Instead, their response — or lack thereof — leaves us exasperated.

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