Tri-Party Agreement stands 20 years later

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerMay 19, 2009 

Twenty years ago this month the Tri-Party Agreement was signed, laying out a plan to clean up the massive radioactive and hazardous waste contamination at Hanford within 30 years.

The Department of Energy and its two new regulators signed the document, though they did not really know how contaminated the 586 square miles of the nuclear reservation were and the technology did not exist to do the work.

Nuclear cleanup on such a massive scale had never been attempted.

Randy Smith, now retired, led negotiations for the Environmental Protection Agency. After working 13 months on the document, regulators were proud of the plan, but a round of public meetings drew criticism.

He remembers one man pointing a finger at him and demanding, "Can you guarantee me this site will be completely clean in 30 years?"

"I said, 'No. But I can tell you it will be a lot cleaner than it is toda,' " he remembered.

And it is, he said. "It's a lot cleaner and a lot further along. But is it far enough? No."

That seems to be the story of the Tri-Party Agreement.

There's no hope Hanford will be cleaned up in 30 years. DOE estimates radioactive waste treatment at the vitrification plant will be done in 2047.

Washington state has sued DOE over missed Tri-Party Agreement deadlines, but the state still sees the agreement as an essential tool, said Jay Manning, director of the Washington State Department of Ecology. "We are demonstrating to the whole world we can clean up a site like Hanford," he said.

And large parts of the site will be clean in 30 years.

DOE is working to shrink the contaminated area of the site to 75 square miles at its center by 2015. That means the security zone around the site -- now the Hanford Reach National Monument -- and 210 square miles in the production portion of the site along the Columbia River should be mostly clean.

"We've turned a corner where we can see where completing cleanup along the river is really tangible," said Dennis Faulk, program manager for EPA's Hanford Project Office.

To understand how much has changed, you need to look back to a few years before the Tri-Party Agreement was signed, said Manning, who worked on the agreement as a state assistant attorney general.

Hanford was still producing plutonium for nuclear weapons and was shrouded in secrecy. DOE had an attitude of "we know best," Manning said, and resented oversight.

But the times were changing. National media were writing investigative stories about DOE sites and their lack of oversight, Manning said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council won a lawsuit making clear that states had authority to oversee the hazardous waste component of mixed radioactive materials. Congress also amended the Superfund law to include sites such as Hanford.

The Tri-Party Agreement avoided a lawsuit over DOE failing to meet new cleanup standards by laying out a framework for cleanup and setting deadlines.

To date, 1,264 enforceable deadlines, or milestones, have been set in the agreement, according to DOE. Of those, 1,030 have been completed. Among those that have come due, 41 have been missed.

But the document is constantly changing, with some deadlines modified as new wastes are found. In other cases, DOE has been fined for missing deadlines.

Manning had doubts when the agreement was signed that some of the work could be done, such as emptying 53 million gallons of waste stored in underground tanks and moving wastes from older tanks to sturdier double-shell tanks.

"I knew it needed to happen," he said. "But would it really happen? I was not so sure."

By emptying seven tanks so far, Hanford workers have shown it can be done, he said.

The agreement forces DOE to invent the technologies needed for cleanup, he said. That ranges from ways to get high-level radioactive waste out of enclosed underground tanks to building the vitrification plant that will treat radioactive wastes of a complexity and on a scale never attempted before.

"It's surprising it's been this expensive and taken this long," Manning said, adding what is being done at Hanford is "historic and incredibly significant."

The state believes the Tri-Party Agreement will continue to drive cleanup at Hanford, although it is seeking a consent decree enforceable by the court to speed tank waste treatment.

The agreement says the tanks are to be emptied by 2018 -- a year before the vitrification plant is expected to be ready. The waste also is supposed to be treated by 2028, but DOE could miss that by almost two decades.

There also have been successes under the agreement, starting with an end to the practice of discharging contaminated liquids into drain fields at Hanford. EPA also points out as a success the methods developed to treat contaminated ground water and to clean chemicals from soil.

An ongoing success has been driving the congressional appropriation for cleanup by laying out work plans, Manning said. The work requires about $2 billion annually in federal money.

Although DOE has been fined for missed deadlines, it considers the Tri-Party Agreement "extremely valuable," said Dave Brockman, manager of the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office.

"When we get down to tough decisions, the framework is in the TPA," he said. "It will be relevant until we're done."

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