Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

Aug 29 2003

OLYMPIA -- Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire and her colleagues in three other states today described as "wholly unnecessary" a recent legislative proposal from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that would give the agency broad latitude in deciding how to categorize and dispose of high-level nuclear waste at Hanford.

In a letter to the congressional leaders, Gregoire and the Attorneys General of Oregon, Idaho and South Carolina said the broad discretionary authority that would be granted by the proposed legislation would not ensure protection of human health and the environment.

"DOE's proposal is simply another attempt to get around what Congress intended for the safe disposal of high-level radioactive waste at Hanford and other nuclear facilities around the country," Gregoire said. "Current laws will ensure adequate cleanup at Hanford and we will oppose any effort to weaken those laws."

Gregoire said DOE's proposal is based on a misreading of a federal judge's decision in July in a case challenging an internal DOE policy on nuclear-waste disposal. That decision by U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Idaho invalidated a DOE order that would have given the agency broad authority to redefine high-level radioactive waste as low-level and transuranic waste, which require less stringent disposal methods.

Gregoire said Winmill's decision merely affirmed Congress' longstanding intent to ensure that high-level radioactive waste is safely disposed of in a geologically stable underground repository while allowing properly treated, less-radioactive waste to be disposed of elsewhere.

Washington, Idaho, Oregon and South Carolina submitted a friend of the court brief in the Idaho case, which was filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, affected tribal nations, and others. The states also proposed to resolve waste disposal issues through mediation rather than litigation, but DOE rejected the proposal.

The DOE legislative proposal, which was presented in a letter earlier this month to U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, would amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and other federal laws to overturn the court's decision.

The letter from the attorneys general echoed concerns sent to DOE Aug. 12 by Washington Department of Ecology Director Tom Fitzsimmons and his counterparts in Idaho, Oregon and South Carolina. In a letter to DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham, the environmental officials said DOE already has the tools needed to treat and properly dispose of high-level radioactive waste and that amending the law would only undermine mutual efforts to address nuclear waste issues.

There are approximately 54 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste located at the Department of Energy's Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Eastern Washington. The waste-enough to fill a football field 150 feet deep-- is stored in 177 aging underground tanks. Over 1 million gallons of waste has already leaked from Hanford's tanks, contaminating the surrounding soil and groundwater, and threatening the Columbia River-the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest.