The threat of radioactive waste seeping into the Columbia River mirrored the drama of a sci-fi horror movie — but the lines spoken by state and federal regulators were all too real.
Both good and bad news was delivered on Thursday in the “State of the Site” update from the Tri-Party agencies responsible for the cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Mike Gearheard of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said measurable progress was finally being made after 12 years to retrieve dangerous chemicals within a 100-square-mile radius where the groundwater had been contaminated and threatened the health of the Columbia River. However, he said there had been some seepage of chemicals into the major waterway that is now being closely monitored and “plumes” of chemicals, such as nitrates, uranium and chromium, are snaking toward the river through subsurface channels.
“We have met some joint goals, we have committed to do our best to stop the infiltration of dangerous material into the ground,” said Gearheard.
A lively discussion about the methodology of cleanup on the 586-square-mile site waged between citizens and representatives from the EPA, Washington State Department of Ecology and U.S. Department of Energy.
“It’s our Northwest, we’re the ones who are responsible and if we don’t get together and tell them (regulators) what our core principles are we’re going to lose this game called cleanup,” said Greg DeBruler, Hanford technical consultant for Columbia Riverkeeper of Hood River.
“We have a very, very difficult job at Hanford, you know that, and hopefully this dialogue will help us do that better,” said Tom Fitzsimmons from the DOE.
DeBruler and Amber Waldref of Heart of America Northwest, a Hanford watchdog group, blasted the three agencies for allowing a recent shipment of plutonium-laden transuranic waste to travel through the Columbia River Gorge on its journey from California to Hanford. They said a deal had been struck between the Washington Department of Ecology and DOE that did not involve public dialogue and trucks had illegally rolled with the 30 barrels of waste prior to the completion of an environmental impact study. Those barrels are just the first in a series of shipments that will be transported from Ohio and California to the desert site that has been used to dump radioactive materials and chemicals since it began producing atomic bombs in World War II.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg, there are thousands of other shipments on the horizon,” warned Waldref.
Fitzsimmons said Washington officials had initially been prepared to file a lawsuit in an uncertain attempt to block the federal agency from making shipments of 170 barrels. However, he said the state was swayed from that course by a DOE promise to bring in new equipment and free up tens of millions of dollars to speed up the Hanford cleanup, now expected to be completed by 2035. The federal agency also agreed to ship twice as much waste from the Washington dump site to a permanent waste repository in New Mexico.
He reminded the 110-member audience that waste materials were routinely being transported out of Hanford to other federal energy plants and repositories across the country in spite of protests by citizens in those states.
“This is a national issue, there’s a lot of tradeoffs back and forth and we need to work our way carefully through the issues to, ultimately, get what we want,” said Fitzsimmons.
But DeBruler told the state and federal officials that tradeoffs should never compromise the health of the river or the people who lived along its shoreline.
“Hanford is important to all of us. The concern we have is one thing, it’s a resource called water,” he said.
He and Waldref rebuked the federal and state regulators for crafting a proposal to close up to 40 of the 177 radioactive waste tanks by 2006 — years ahead of the work schedule. They said it was known that at least 68 of these tanks, which contained a total of about 53 million gallons of highly radioactive matter, had leaked and the soils beneath this area were “grossly” contaminated and also in need of rehabilitation. Because of the complexity of these problems, the two watchdog groups did not think the 500,000 gallon storage containers, most of which are single-shelled, should be sealed off until all public safety issues had been thoroughly addressed.
“How can you even talk about closing the tanks when there are still questions to be answered?” asked Waldref.
Also in agreement with delaying that action was Todd Martin, chair of the Hanford Advisory Board. That body is made up of 31 people representing citizen-stakeholder groups and governments in the Hanford region.
“You should just be focused on retrieving waste and focusing on closing the tanks later,” said Martin.
Area citizens joined the dialogue, alternately praising the noticeable progress on the Hanford cleanup and challenging that effort to move along even faster. Scott Bergeron of Cook, Wash., drew a round of applause when he said there needed to be a change in global ideology to put an end to the perceived need for nuclear weapons that would end the production of radioactive chemicals altogether.
“Maybe now is the time to change the world — when America changes, the world is going to change,” he said.
DeBruler urged citizens to attend the DOE meeting about the tank closure in Hood River on Feb. 18. He said there is no sound technical basis for making that move at this time and it is continued pressure from citizen activists that will keep federal agencies accountable and on track.
“These people have a big job to do but they can’t do it without us,” DeBruler.