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Citizens express alarm over Hanford


News staff writer

May 31, 2006

Columbia Riverkeeper believes it is no coincidence that wild female Chinook salmon in the Hanford Reach are showing male markings.

The watchdog group contends the federal government is also reluctant to reveal another troubling fact: Every sample taken from fish in the area has found genetic damage from exposure to Chromium.

These disturbing developments were expressed at a public forum on Hanford clean-up Wednesday at the Hood River Valley Adult Center.

Greg DeBruler, Riverkeeper’s technical expert, said none of these abnormalities are fully addressed in the five-year review of the Hanford project. He believes that unless an independent analysis is done, the cleanup will leave behind enough radioactive waste to continue a public health and safety threat.

DeBruler contends the cancer rate among Native Americans who eat large quantities of salmon has risen sharply in recent years. He said about one in every 50 persons are now afflicted with the disease.

Riverkeeper said these and other problems are created by the contamination of 270 billion gallons of groundwater spread out over 80 square miles at Hanford. And chemical “plumes” continue snaking toward the river, or have already reached the shoreline, through subsurface channels.

Instead of actually getting rid of all radioactive waste, DeBruler said the U.S. Department of Energy is relying on “institutional controls” to remedy most of the problems. But, while the agency can keep people from getting onto the tainted property near Richland, Wash., DeBruler said it will be impossible to keep animals from getting out.

“We cannot allow the fox to guard the hen house any longer. If this is not done right, do you really think the government will spend more money to do it again?” he asked.

“This is a USDOE shell game. By going down this road they are going to win by default.”

Not only do citizens need to actively lobby for the independent review, DeBruler said they need to protest any cuts in the dollars spent on cleanup.

In April, Nicholas Ceto, Hanford project manager from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, warned Hood River County officials about lowered funding levels.

He said the USDOE, which owns the Hanford site, has requested $1.8 billion in its 2008 budget. That is par with the amount of funding approved by Congress for 2006, and only slightly below the $1.9 billion earmarked for 2007. However, it is well below the all-time high of $2.1 billion dedicated to the removal of radioactive materials in 2005 and the $2 billion in 2004.

Representatives from USDOE and EPA concurred at last week’s forum that federal money is getting tighter due to the war in Iraq and hurricane devastation to the Gulf Coast. Conversely, prices are continually rising for the cost of labor and materials.

Meanwhile, the USDOE has undertaken construction of an expensive plant – about 30 percent completed – to correct some of the worst problems. The plant will turn waste retrieved from 177 aging and leaking underground tanks into a stable glass form for disposal.

“The money’s been cut and yet they’re embarking on the largest cleanup yet of the Hanford site,” said DeBruler.

He said that makes the need for an independent review even more urgent. Since the USDOE would like the groundwater portion of the cleanup done by 2012, he said there is no time to waste. If the current roadmap is not working then the direction for cleanup needs to change course immediately.

“Scanning this information scares me to death. It seems to me the remedies are really crude and basically ineffective,” said resident Kathy Fitzpatrick after reading the newly released USDOE draft report.

Hanford was built during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project. The site produced 74 tons of plutonium — 10 pounds required for a bomb — for nuclear weapons through the late 1980s.

In 1989 the focus turned to cleanup of heavily contaminated sectors of the 586 square mile property. The hazardous waste slated for removal included plutonium strontium, uranium, other metals and organic compounds.

A workforce of 7,000 people is tasked with meeting legal timelines for the cleanup set out in a tri-party agreement between the USDOE, Washington State Department of Ecology and EPA.

During the world’s largest environmental cleanup, more than 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel have been packaged and moved away from the Columbia River. Twenty tons of plutonium-bearing materials have been stabilized and packaged for eventual disposal offsite. Five of the nine plutonium reactors have been partially demolished and placed in interim safe storage.

In addition, more than 6.3 million tons of contaminated dirt have been dug up along the Columbia and hauled to a disposal facility in the middle of the Hanford site.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat it, but I think we need to keep a little perspective here and not say all is doom and gloom,” said Paul Shaffer from the Oregon Department of Energy at the May 24 forum.

However, he and other officials involved in the cleanup acknowledge that there is still a long way to go. More than 50 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste remain in the underground tanks. And 25 million cubic feet of solid waste are buried or stored at the site.

In addition, about 1,700 waste sites and 500 polluted facilities still need to be dealt with. Another challenge facing the USDOE is to assess the deep subsurface defilement and its potential impacts.

DeBruler said for the sake of future generations, citizens now need to exercise their voice and their vote.

“They are lacking in the protectiveness pieces and we’re hoping they can do something to make that more robust,” he said.

Riverkeeper urges Gorge residents to contact their Congressional delegation and request more funding and an independent analysis of the Hanford project.

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