The state of Washington is preparing to take the most aggressive action in four years against the U.S. Department of Energy for the federal government’s failure to adhere to waste laws and legally binding cleanup schedules at the Hanford Site - a sign of state officials' growing frustration with lack of progress in the decades-long nuclear waste cleanup.
The more aggressive stance will come in two parts, according to email communications obtained by KING 5. On Friday, the state Department of Ecology ordered a new, faster timetable for pumping out a massive double-shell waste tank -- designated AY-102 -- that is slowly leaking highly radioactive waste. Next week, the state will communicate to the Department of Energy and the Department of Justice that the government is in violation of the 2010 consent decree governing the Hanford cleanup -- a step that could lead to court action to force more changes at Hanford.
News of the two actions come days after Gov. Jay Inslee met with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in Olympia to discuss the government's plan for starting up the Waste Treatment Plant -- a $13 billion project to convert the most deadly radioactive waste at Hanford into stable glass logs for long-term storage. The plant is already years behind schedule, with work halted on a key part over concerns that the technology could fail and spew radiation over the nearby Tri-Cities.
The order issued Friday deals specifically with AY-102, a massive waste tank that has been at the center of a year-long KING 5 investigation, Hanford’s Dirty Secrets. KING 5 exposed the government's contractor in charge of the tanks, Washington River Protection Solutions, ignored scientific evidence for nearly a year that the tank was leaking. The series also revealed the company lacked mandatory plans to deal with the leak and wasted millions of tax dollars on projects deemed unusable specifically because the tank was falling apart.
According to a plan released on March 7, the federal government said it would not begin pumping the leaking double-shell tank until 2016 at the earliest. State and federal waste laws require leaking tanks to be emptied within 24 hours or whatever is practical.
Friday's order dramatically speeds the timetable for pumping out AY-102. The state said removal of liquid waste in the tank is to begin by September 1, with the removal of harder-to-retrieve solid waste to begin by December 1, 2015. The entire tank must be emptied by Dec. 1, 2016.
“Waiting another two years, at best, to initiate actions to address this hazardous condition is neither legally acceptable nor environmentally prudent. The state cannot afford further delays on removing waste from this tank," said Maia Bellon, Ecology's director.
Ecology also ordered the Department of Energy and WRPS to more closely monitor AY-102 to ensure that the leak does not allow radioactive materials to escape into the environment.
The Department of Energy said it was "disappointed" that Ecology issued the order without advance notice, especially after Secretary Moniz flew to Washington to brief the governor. "We have been actively monitoring and inspecting all of the double shell tanks at Hanford," Energy's statement says. "The Department believes there are risks associated with pumping Tank AY-102 at this time. The tank is not leaking into the environment, and there is no immediate threat to the public or the environment posed by AY-102.
Asked about what message the order sends, Ecology Director Maia Bellon told KING 5: "I expect the federal government to take this order very seriously, to understand that we mean business when it comes to ensuring the laws of our state are met, to ensuring that we prevent threats to public health and the environment."
Bellon added: "And I expect the federal government to execute on this order and to work cooperatively with the state to pump the AY-102 tank and to continue to move forward on effective and good management at the Hanford facility."
Bellon said the federal government can appeal Ecology's order within 30 days, but she defended the state's plan as giving the Energy Department sufficient time to position equipment and monitor the tank before starting to pump on September 1.
Pace of cleanup
After meeting with Moniz on Monday, Inslee said the Energy secretary's briefing failed to satisfy the state's demands that the overall Hanford cleanup be expedited. Specifically, the Energy Department had agreed to have the Waste Treatment Plant in initial operation by 2019 and in full production mode by 2022. The federal government has already said it will miss those deadlines by years.
Both the governor and Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued statements after the Moniz meeting saying the state was considering legal action to force the government to live up to its agreements at Hanford.
According to internal state emails obtained by KING 5, representatives from Gov. Inslee’s office and the Department of Ecology gave Sen. Patty Murray a “high-level debrief” on the state’s new consent decree plan on Tuesday.
Asked to comment on possible legal action, Ferguson said Friday: “The people of our region deserve a comprehensive plan forward to address Hanford Cleanup. As both the Governor and I stated earlier this week, we are reviewing all options to enforce the obligations set forth in our 2010 consent decree and the Tri-Party Agreement – and we will have more to share soon.”
Hanford is considered one of the most contaminated places on the planet. Located in southeastern Washington, the 586-square-mile reservation was home to massive factories that produced plutonium for the nation's nuclear arsenal. Starting in 1943 and lasting until 1989, the plutonium production produced huge volumes of waste, including 56 million gallons of radioactive liquid and sludge that's been kept in carbon steel tanks.
-- KING 5's Russ Walker contributed.