The U.S. Department of Energy got a forceful, if proverbial, slap in the face from more than 100 citizens, politicians and other government entities Wednesday night at a public meeting on the agency’s draft Hanford Site Solid Waste Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
The draft EIS is an 800-page document assessing the potential impacts of shipping thousands of truckloads of chemical and radioactive waste from other Energy Department sites around the country to Hanford and burying it in massive trenches — a proposal slated to be implemented next year.
The DOE findings of the assessment — that impacts on the environment would be “relatively small and would not be expected to contribute substantially to cumulative impacts of other activities at Hanford or in the surrounding region” — were not dwelled on much Wednesday night.
Instead, DOE spokesman Michael Collins breezed through a Powerpoint presentation that alternated between maps of various storage sites at Hanford and pictures of concrete storage trenches, and bullet-pointed factoids and questions for the public that ranged from the informative to the bizarre.
Collins highlighted the types of waste analyzed in the EIS — ranging from low-level waste to transuranic waste, which he defined as waste that “presents a breathing problem.” He also reiterated the DOE’s stated purpose of the meeting: for the public to help determine the best ways to treat and dispose of waste at Hanford.
“What can you help decide?” Collins read from the overhead projector, then read a list of questions the DOE ostensibly thinks members of the general public are qualified to answer.
One item read, “Should the Department of Energy dispose of low-level waste and mixed low-level waste in existing-size trenches, bigger trenches, OR a megatrench?”
Following Collins’ presentation and a brief question period, Dennis Falk, representing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, offered his agency’s view of the EIS.
He called the document “extremely vague” and admonished the DOE for ignoring Washington state and federal laws throughout its assessment. He also said the Energy Department had not addressed the public comments from the last EIS, completed in 1998.
“If they had, we wouldn’t have 300 people sitting here,” he said.
Mary Anne Wuennecke of the Washington Department of Ecology said her agency “believes the EIS falls short on all counts,” including its too narrow scope, insufficient environmental impact analysis, and the failure to address waste transportation concerns.
“The Department of Ecology wants to be confident that Hanford’s legacy of waste and contamination is and will be managed safely before we consider adding to the burden,” she said.
Letters from Rep. Greg Walden and Sen. Ron Wyden were read into the record. Walden accused the DOE of failing to “comprehensively address” the storage of wastes already at Hanford and expressed “strong opposition” to transporting and storing additional nuclear waste at the site.
Wayne Kinney, a representative from Wyden’s office, read from the senator’s letter, in which he called the transporting of nuclear waste from other sites to Hanford “a shell game.”
“This is an 800-page document,” Kinney said, holding up the EIS. “As far as we’re concerned, this is the only thing that belongs in unlined trenches.”
Copies of a letter from Sen. Gordon Smith to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham were also available at the meeting. Regarding the plan to ship additional nuclear waste to Hanford, Smith wrote, “This proposal should not even be considered, particularly since the (Energy) Department has yet to process a single ounce of the liquid waste already stored at Hanford.”
Greg deBruler, Hanford technical consultant for Columbia Riverkeeper, a river watchdog group, called the EIS “a real insult.”
“What they didn’t tell you is that Hanford is 586 square miles, and of that there are more than 100 square miles of groundwater contamination,” he said. DeBruler said the DOE has failed to assess the impacts of that contamination, “and now they want to add more.”
DeBruler also echoed Falk’s criticism that the DOE failed to follow state and federal laws in its EIS.
“My recommendation is, you flunked your test. Go back and do it again,” deBruler said.
“It’s our Northwest, it’s our country, it’s not the DOE’s,” deBruler said. “Follow state and federal laws. If not, leave the state of Washington and we’ll get someone else to clean up the mess.”
The tenor of the public comment period that followed remained mostly civil, but there was a palpable sense of disdain for the DOE as nearly two dozen people made comments for the record.
Greg Morris, a Gorge resident who said he was formerly a pollution investigator in Houston, told the DOE representatives that their “promises have proven to be trash.”
“If you were not exempt by federal law, you would be put in jail,” he said.
Hood River businessman Bob Carnahan, a retired scientist with a Ph.D. in materials science, took issue with the DOE’s repeated use of the word “disposal” in reference to nuclear waste.
“We can’t dispose of any of this,” he said. “We can only manage it.” Like many others, Carnahan suggested that an independent agency was needed to oversee the DOE.
Daniel Lichtenwald of Goldendale, Wash., accused the DOE of being “out of control.”
“They give us a choice, lined or unlined. Do you want paper or plastic,” he mocked. “These are phony choices.”
Catherine Zangar of Hood River also called on an independent group to monitor the DOE’s actions at Hanford.
“This EIS — it’s like asking the mob to police themselves,” she said.
Lisa Montgomery, who identified herself as a member of the Yakama Tribe, drove from Zig Zag to attend the meeting.
“I’m disgusted with our politicians,” she said. She told of catching a two-headed sturgeon in the Columbia River when she was 12 years old. “That was 20 years ago. What are we doing about it?”
Cindy deBruler, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, said the opposition to the EIS and the Energy Department’s proposal to begin shipping waste from other sites to Hanford — slated to begin early next year — will be an “ongoing battle.”
“It’s going to be a long war,” she added.
Greg deBruler called on the DOE to “stop this process” and “reinvent where we’re going.”
“This EIS clearly shows the (DOE) hasn’t learned,” he said. “You’ve failed.”
A videotape and other documents from Wednesday’s meeting are available from Columbia Riverkeeper. Call 541-387-3030 or 509-493-3808. Copies of the EIS are available from Michael Collins at 509-376-6536 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org