Washington's lawsuit over Hanford cleanup is timely and measured response to delays
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna disagree with The Times editorial criticizing their decision to sue the federal government over its reticence to negotiate a new Hanford cleanup plan. Hanford nuclear site cleanup is already 20 years behind schedule
Special to The Times
THE Hanford nuclear site is the most dangerous contaminated site in the United States. Unfortunately, the federal government has failed to meet its commitment to clean up Hanford. That's why we recently asked the federal courts to require the U.S. Department of Energy to do what is required by federal and state law — and what the agency itself agreed to do in signing the Tri-Party Agreement in 1989.
In its Nov. 28 editorial ("Is another Hanford suit really necessary?"), The Times said now isn't the time for litigation because of a concern cleanup could suffer budget repercussions in Congress. In the short term, The Times might be right.
But Hanford is far from a short-term problem. We firmly believe the lawsuit we filed Nov. 26 increases the certainty that the Department of Energy will take seriously its obligations, including seeking the funding necessary to complete the cleanup. With it, we're forcing the federal government to make Hanford cleanup the priority. It must be.
We hope a settlement can be reached, but if that isn't possible, a court date will be set. Without the real prospect of legal consequences, the completion of cleanup will likely extend into the next century.
The Times expressed the opinion: "An agreement is always better than a lawsuit, a settlement better than a protracted trial." We agree. That's why we worked so hard to reach agreement with the federal government. But we cannot settle at any cost, nor can we engage in settlement discussions indefinitely.
We cannot imagine that any Washingtonian would support the settlement terms demanded by the federal government, which would have rendered the agreement unenforceable and put us in an even worse position than we are now under current law.
Like The Times, we are hopeful the new administration will work with us on solutions to the stalled cleanup. Right now, however, our lawsuit is necessary to protect our state's options for holding the federal government to its commitments. Failure to complete the cleanup of the highly radioactive and toxic waste buried in the ground near the Columbia River is simply not an option.
Just below ground at the Hanford site are 177 steel tanks containing 53 million gallons of heavy metals, acids, solvents and lethal radioactive waste. Of those tanks, 149 are of single-wall construction and well beyond their design life span — and 67 have confirmed leaks. These leaks threaten the safety of the river.
That's why three years ago, we warned the federal government we would bring legal action if it continued to violate our agreed-to cleanup plan and schedule. That's why we directed a high-level team of the best state environmental attorneys to negotiate in a good-faith attempt to develop a new cleanup plan. We stayed at the negotiation table for 18 months.
The negotiations failed because the federal government refused to agree to an enforceable agreement. Only after negotiations failed did we file suit, asking the U.S. District Court to establish a schedule and enforce it.
This cleanup project is already 20 years behind schedule, and even the most recently constructed single-shell tanks reached the end of their design life 20 years ago. Through this lawsuit, we hope to ensure the bulk of Hanford cleanup is completed by 2040.
This lawsuit is about the Columbia River — a vital lifeline of our region. It's about the health, safety and economic security of our region. In the Washington counties below Hanford, roughly 25,000 companies rely on clean, safe water to provide 280,000 jobs and a payroll of $9.5 billion — 10 percent of the state's economic activity.
We must have a cleanup schedule that's enforceable. We must ensure the Energy Department will not continue to delay fulfilling its responsibilities by developing its own unilateral schedule and priorities. It is clear to us that our lawsuit is a necessary step in establishing and enforcing a meaningful cleanup schedule at Hanford.Chris Gregoire is Washington's governor, and Rob McKenna its attorney general. The state, through the Department of Ecology, regulates the federal cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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