SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the U.S. Department of Energy have filed what is expected to be the final round of materials in Washington’s lawsuit regarding the cleanup of nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
After a U.S. District Court judge agreed with several key arguments from the Attorney General’s Office in August, both parties submitted updated proposals in November to comply with the judge’s ruling. Yesterday’s filings represent the parties' responses to those proposals.
The court will now consider the proposals, assisted by a three-person advisory panel that will provide guidance on technical and scientific matters.
Washington’s updated plan includes specific milestones and reporting requirements to ensure Energy stays on track with its cleanup obligations. In contrast, Energy’s proposal extends its existing deadlines by years and would provide the agency sweeping authority to unilaterally decide when deadlines need to be kicked further back or even, in some circumstances, whether compliance is required at all.
“Our plan provides a clear path forward for Energy to finally uphold its responsibilities at Hanford,” Ferguson said. “I am deeply concerned by Energy’s proposal to extend deadlines yet again. My office is fighting to ensure Washingtonians get a legally enforceable agreement that protects our environment and holds Energy accountable.”
The lawsuit’s origins stem from 2008 when then-Attorney General Rob McKenna filed suit against Energy after the federal agency missed numerous deadlines imposed by Hanford’s Tri-Party Agreement, an administrative order guiding the cleanup at Hanford.
That lawsuit was settled when the parties agreed to the judicially enforced order, called a “consent decree,” to govern the retrieval of a significant portion of Hanford’s tank wastes, as well as set firm deadlines for construction of a waste treatment plant to treat those and other remaining tank wastes.
After Energy again failed to live up to its obligations under the consent decree, Ferguson, in partnership with the Washington Department of Ecology, filed the current lawsuit against Energy in October 2014 to enforce the decree. While the state agrees that some additional time is needed to address safety issues at the waste treatment plant, the state disagrees with Energy’s attempt to bump schedules even further and eliminate firm deadlines from the decree.
The court has largely agreed. In a ruling issued Aug. 13, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington Chief Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson agreed with the state that Energy needs enforceable deadlines and greater accountability measures in its cleanup work. Judge Peterson’s order also called for Energy to construct additional double-shell tanks to accomplish waste retrievals from potentially leaking single shell tanks if it is unable to meet certain retrieval milestones.
In all, Hanford houses approximately 56 million gallons of radioactive and chemical waste in 177 temporary underground holding tanks at the center of the Hanford site. Energy’s substandard efforts to retrieve, treat, and ultimately safely dispose of this waste — the subject of years of delay — are at the heart of the state’s lawsuit.
With regard to the Waste Treatment Plant, Judge Peterson’s August ruling rejected Energy’s lack of specific milestones to get waste treatment back on track. Washington’s updated proposal contains 35 specific milestones to address the resolution of technical issues, redesign of the process, completion of construction, testing, and ultimate operations of the full plant.
Washington proposes that the plant demonstrate its real-world ability to treat wastes in 2032 with operations beginning in 2034. These milestones will ensure that Energy has the time necessary to address the technical issues associated with the waste treatment plant, while providing the detailed progress measures necessary to track Energy’s progress and ensure it remains on track.
There is no set timeline for the court to issue a final decision.
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 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.
In a separate lawsuit, Ferguson is suing Energy and its contractor, Washington River Protection Services, alleging that hazardous tank vapors at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, pose a serious risk to workers at the site.
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