Update: DOE may miss court-enforced Hanford deadlines

Tri-City HeraldJune 7, 2013 

— The Department of Energy has notified the state of Washington it is at serious risk of missing two more Hanford environmental cleanup deadlines required by a court-enforced consent decree.

The deadlines were set less than three years ago and are the third and fourth that DOE has told the state it may not be able to meet.

The latest two deadlines cover work critical to a long-term plan to protect the Columbia River — emptying leak-prone underground tanks of radioactive waste and building the vitrification plant to treat the waste.

Four deadlines at risk is “unacceptable,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement.

“We expect the federal government to do everything within its power to avoid or minimize any possible delays in meeting all its legal and moral requirements to protect the health of our residents and the Columbia River,” Inslee said. “We are evaluating all our options to ensure those commitments are met.”

New Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz called Inslee Thursday to warn him DOE may not be able to meet the deadlines, the state announced Friday. The Department of Justice also sent a letter to the Washington State Office of Attorney General.

“DOE is providing this notice out of an abundance of caution,” the letter said. It asked for a meeting to discuss the circumstances leading to the notice and the options DOE is considering to address the situation.

DOE has yet to provide justification for the delays or propose a new path forward for the deadlines that it told the state in late 2011 it would be unlikely to meet, according to the state. Those deadlines were related to construction and startup of the vitrification plant.

The latest deadlines at risk include work to empty the last two tanks, Tanks C-102 and C-105, in the group called C Tank Farm by September 2014, when the consent decree requires all 16 to be emptied. DOE believes it can empty five of the seven tanks that still hold waste by the deadline.

In addition, construction on the vitrification plant's Low Activity Waste Facility may not be substantially completed as required by the end of 2014.

"This consent decree was signed in late 2010 and approved by a federal court with the understanding that all the requirements could be met," Inslee said. "I appreciated the secretary placing a high priority on Hanford cleanup and know he understands that to hear from the federal government less than three years later that, not only two, but now four of those milestones are at risk is unacceptable to the state of Washington.”

DOE must show the state that it is doing everything within its power to avoid or minimize any delays, said Bob Ferguson, Washington state attorney general, in a statement Friday.

DOE must also provide the state with specific reasons for the delays, the environmental risks of the delays and the recovery schedule DOE proposes to complete the work covered by the two deadlines, Ferguson said.

The consent decree resolved a lawsuit filed by the state in 2008 after DOE and the state were unable to come to agreement on new deadlines. At the time, DOE had already missed a deadline set by the Tri-Party Agreement to have all the C Farm tanks emptied in 2006, and it had become apparent that it could not meet a deadline to have the vitrification plant operating in 2011.

The consent decree set new deadlines, including extending the C Tank Farm deadline now at risk to 2014, and moving the required start of operations at the vit plant to 2019, with several interim deadlines for the plant to keep it on schedule.

In exchange for the reset deadlines, DOE was required to answer directly to the court if it misses deadlines in the consent decree.

At the time it was negotiated, state officials said penalties could range from a court-ordered fine to the court finding DOE in contempt, which could result in DOE officials being ordered to serve time.

DOE has met two deadlines in the consent decree — substantially completing construction of the vitrification plant’s Analytical Laboratory and completing the plant’s steam plant construction by the end of 2012.

DOE will continue working with its contractors to mitigate the factors that have contributed to putting consent decree deadlines at risk, said Lindsey Geisler, DOE spokeswoman.

Money has been spent cautiously at Hanford this year because Congress failed to approve a budget for fiscal 2013. Contractors were uncertain how much money they would have in the later part of the year. The tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, laid off workers when sequestration, or mandatory federal budget cuts, kicked in during March.

Although DOE, with congressional approval, shifted money among accounts in May to provide $48 million more for the tank farms, the slowdown in work to empty C Farm tanks still is expected to last at least three months. Washington River Protection Solutions is hiring 100 workers this month with part of the additional money, but training will slow the ramp up of work.

The vitrification plant project also was waiting for money to be shifted from work stalled by technical issues to construction ready to proceed. Because there was no budget passed for the current fiscal year, spending had been rolled over in a continuing resolution at the level of the previous year, including for construction stopped by technical issues.

“Very shortly after the consent decree became final, it was widely recognized that legal milestones in the agreement would likely be missed,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., in a statement.

Hastings has supported efforts by the state to hold the federal government accountable for its legal cleanup commitments and hopes that the notification will prompt a long overdue plan for the vitrification plant that is achievable and aggressive, he said. Adequate money for the plant has been provided, he added.

He has pressed DOE to develop and share a plan for the vitrification plant — including the schedule, cost estimate and work needed to resolve technical issues.

“While much focus has been on the possible risks associated with technical issues, far too little attention has been paid to the risks caused by further WTP (Waste Treatment Plant) delays,” he said. “Completing WTP is not optional and work must move forward.”

None of the C Farm tanks are believed to be leaking, but the discovery that six-single shell tanks in other tank farms are leaking has put an increased focus on getting waste out of all of Hanford’s oldest tanks. The waste is being transferred to double-shell tanks, but one of those tanks also has developed a leak, which is contained between its shells.

The state continues to request information from DOE on plans to deal with the leaking tanks, according to the state.

Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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