Court agrees with AG on deadlines, accountability and need for double-shell tanks
SEATTLE — A U.S. District Court judge has agreed with critical components of the Attorney General’s arguments in a lawsuit regarding the cleanup process at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
In a ruling issued Thursday evening, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington Chief Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson agreed that the U.S. Department of Energy needs enforceable deadlines and greater accountability measures in its cleanup work. Judge Peterson’s order also calls for Energy to construct additional double-shell tanks, if it is unable to meet certain cleanup milestones.
“This decision represents a victory for the people and environment of Washington state,” Ferguson said. “My office will continue to hold the Department of Energy accountable for the Hanford cleanup.”
In a significant development, the court recognized that, “Given DOE’s history of delay and noncompliance,” if Energy cannot meet its obligations to retrieve waste from single-shell storage tanks, the court will require Energy to construct additional double-shell tanks. Energy has resisted adding these safer storage tanks, relying instead on single-shell tanks that are years past their useful life and many of which are leaking dangerous contaminants.
Part of the dispute involves accountability and goals for the cleanup. After encountering technical problems, Energy asked the court to allow it to continue without a timeline for completing the Waste Treatment Plant needed to treat the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste contained at Hanford. The Attorney General’s Office, in coordination with the Department of Ecology, argued for specific goals and accountability. Judge Peterson rejected Energy’s open-ended approach and agreed with Ferguson’s office that the cleanup effort requires “specific milestone deadlines.”
Moving forward, Judge Peterson asked the state and Energy to modify their proposals to meet her new requirements within 90 days. At that point, she will work with a panel of experts to review the technical aspects of the case and reach a decision on specific modifications of the consent decree, including new targets and timelines for waste retrieval.
In a July 23 oral decision, Judge Peterson announced she would convene the panel, composed of one expert selected by the state, another by Energy, and a third agreed upon by both parties or selected by the court. The panel will provide technical advice to the court, and will likely be identified in September.
The Hanford Site is a World War II- and Cold War-era nuclear reservation operated by the U.S. federal government in southeastern Washington. Hanford’s 586 square miles currently house some 56 million gallons of nuclear waste in 177 underground tanks — enough to fill roughly 88 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Most of these tanks are of single-shell construction, and many have leaked.
A federal court consent decree and the Hanford Tri-Party Agreement require USDOE to retrieve and treat Hanford’s tank waste and safely close Hanford’s unfit-for-use single-shell tanks.
The Washington Attorney General's Office has historically played a significant role in enforcing the requirements of the Tri-Party Agreement and ensuring that the cleanup work continues on schedule and in a manner that protects the environment, public health, and the safety of workers performing this important task.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Attorney General Bob Ferguson is working hard to protect consumers and seniors against fraud, keep our communities safe, protect our environment and stand up for our veterans. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Peter Lavallee, Communications Director, (360) 586-0725; PeterL@atg.wa.gov