RICHLAND - June 8, 1998 – With the Columbia River as a backdrop, Gov. Gary Locke and Attorney General Christine Gregoire today announced plans to sue the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) for failing to comply with two milestones in a Hanford cleanup agreement.
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At a news conference in Richland, the state leaders issued a 60-day “notice of intent to sue” the USDOE for missing two deadlines to begin pumping radioactive waste out of underground storage tanks at Hanford.
“(USDOE's) failure to remove liquid waste from the single-shell tanks has become intolerable (and) the future looks even more bleak than the past,” Locke and Gregoire wrote in a joint letter to Federico Peña, secretary of the USDOE.
“We must eliminate this serious threat to the state's largest river and to everyone who lives downstream of Hanford before more radioactive waste starts heading toward the Columbia,” Locke said. “Incredibly, the Department of Energy seems to be waiting for disaster to strike before acting.”
“It's time to hold Energy accountable for protecting the Columbia River,” added Gregoire. “Tank waste is the single greatest threat to the vitality of the Columbia, and we need action from USDOE instead of more excuses and unnecessary delays.”
Under the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement signed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the USDOE and the State of Washington, USDOE agreed to pump the radioactive liquid waste from 149 aging, single-shell tanks into newer, double-shell tanks as an “interim stabilization” measure. However, the interim-stabilization project has been plagued with repeated changes and time extensions.
The Washington Department of Ecology has accommodated 13 USDOE requests for milestone extensions.
“Our patience has run out, and the Department of Energy's credibility is wearing thin,” said Ecology Director Tom Fitzsimmons, whose agency will be listed as plaintiff in the state's lawsuit. “We need them to meet the milestones, and no more excuses.”
In February, Locke and Gregoire met with Peña to express concern about chronic delays in the Hanford cleanup. Their letter to him notes that little progress has been made since then.
“The history of the interim stabilization program at Hanford is one of delay, mismanagement and, above all, failure to stop an ongoing threat to ground water and the Columbia River,” wrote Locke and Gregoire.
The 149 single-shell tanks at Hanford are 30 years past their design life, and at least 70 of them are known to have leaked about one million gallons of radioactive waste. About 5.8 million gallons of liquid waste remain in the tanks, but experts fear it's only a matter of time before the aging tanks spring more leaks.
The Tri-Party Agreement calls for the radioactive waste eventually to be turned into a glass-like substance -- a “final stabilization” measure that will make the waste safer to dispose. The USDOE is facing a July 31, 1998, deadline to issue a contract to construct the facility that will “vitrify” the waste into glass.