The U.S. District Court in Spokane has approved a new schedule that delays the cleanup of radioactive waste from the nation's most contaminated nuclear site by about 20 years.
Watchdog groups have complained that the delays are too long, but state and federal officials said the agreement imposes a new, enforceable and achievable schedule for removing the toxic waste from underground tanks at south-central Washington's Hanford nuclear reservation.
The two sides began negotiating in 2007 when it became clear that the federal government would be unable to meet required deadlines, and Washington state filed suit in 2008 when those negotiations imploded. The consent decree resolves the lawsuit, allowing the federal government more time for complex environmental cleanup but requiring it to answer directly to the court if new deadlines are missed.
The new schedule envisions four more decades of work, which provides thousands of good-paying jobs in the Tri-Cities area of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco.
In a statement Tuesday, Gov. Chris Gregoire said the agreement shows that America will keep its promises to clean up the toxic legacy of nuclear weapons development at Hanford. The site was created in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.
"The Columbia River _ and a million people who live and work downstream from Hanford _ will be protected from contamination," Gregoire said. "Now we can all focus our full attention on getting the cleanup completed."
The new agreements were signed by the three agencies Oct. 6, and U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle entered the judicial consent decree Monday.
Ines Triay, the Energy Department's assistant secretary for environmental management, said the consent decree represents a positive model of collaboration between multiple states and federal entities.
"The end result is a sound agreement with aggressive yet achievable milestones for Hanford tank waste cleanup," she said, adding that the agency is determined to continue making progress on the cleanup.
Hanford's cleanup is governed by the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement, an agreement by the Washington Department of Ecology, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, which manages the site. The agreement spells out deadlines and priorities but has been changed hundreds of times since it was signed.
The latest changes relate to emptying 177 underground tanks that hold a 53-million-gallon stew of toxic, radioactive waste. Many of the tanks have outlived their design life and have leaked into the aquifer, threatening the neighboring Columbia River, the largest waterway in the Pacific Northwest.
The highly radioactive waste will eventually be transferred to a treatment plant that will convert it to glasslike logs for safe, long-term storage. However, construction of that plant lags far behind the original schedule and is currently set to begin operating in 2019.
The new agreement creates milestones to keep construction of the plant on schedule. It also requires that all waste be retrieved from all single-shell tanks in 2040, completing the treatment of tanks waste in 2047 and closing the more secure, double-shell tanks in 2052.
Gerald Pollet, executive director of Hanford watchdog group Heart of America Northwest, said his group decided not to try to stop the court from signing the consent decree.
"But we remain extremely concerned about the impacts of a 22-year delay on emptying the leaky waste tanks," he said.