Our Voice: DOE's lack of specifics hurts relations with state, public

March 22, 2014 

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz ought to be commended for traveling to Olympia last week to discuss Hanford cleanup with Gov. Jay Inslee.

But our desire to congratulate Moniz is tempered by the lack of substance provided during their conversation.

Last month, Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent a letter to Moniz, requesting a plan that would "contain the specificity, detail and comprehensiveness which has thus far not been provided" on how DOE proposes to amend the 2010 court-enforced consent decree.

DOE has alerted the state that it won't meet all the legal deadlines for cleanup outlined in the decree but hasn't produced a detailed proposal for the state to review.

"We made it clear last month we were expecting a comprehensive plan for a path forward, and I was disappointed with the scope of the federal government's approach," Ferguson said after the meeting with Moniz.

The decree covers deadlines for the Hanford vitrification plant being built to treat up to 56 million gallons of waste held in underground tanks.

No project is more essential to eliminating the risk posed by the radioactive and toxic wastes left from decades of plutonium production at Hanford. The lack of details regarding DOE's plans for the facility would be alarming if it was an isolated problem.

But the situation appears to be part of a trend back toward the bad old days when DOE gave little more than lip service to the notion that Hanford's stakeholders are key to the cleanup process.

We didn't draw that conclusion on our own. Complaints about the department's lack of candor cut a wide swath through the political spectrum.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., have said that DOE has failed to keep them informed about critically important Hanford activities or plans, Herald staff writer Annette Cary reported.

The Hanford Advisory Board, which includes representatives of a variety of groups interested in the environmental cleanup, has repeatedly made the same complaint.

In September, DOE released what it called a "framework" for talking about retrieving and treating the waste now held in underground tanks, but it contained few technical details or information on cost or schedule.

HAB sent a formal letter of advice to DOE in December asking for an open and transparent process to resolve issues with the vitrification plant in response to the release of the framework document after a year of near silence.

"We are surprised at the paucity of details it contains, and the near complete absence of solutions suggested for the major technical issues," the letter said.

Last week's meeting between Moniz and Inslee did little to bring any clarity to the technical issues hindering the vit plant's construction.

And it clearly did little to bring the state and DOE into alignment. On Friday, the state ordered DOE to start emptying liquid waste from a Hanford double-shell tank with an interior leak by Sept. 1 -- 18 months ahead of DOE's schedule.

The state complained that after months of discussions, it is clear the federal government was not willing to address state regulations requiring it to remove waste from the tank in a timely manner.

Deteriorating relations between DOE and the state are troubling. Ferguson said during a recent visit to the Tri-Cities that "the time comes when you have to explore legal options" and the state is close to that.

A partnership between the state and DOE would be far more productive than an adversarial relationship, but that can't happen until DOE is more forthcoming with details about cleanup plans.

Moniz made a good first step toward repairing its rapport with the state by traveling to Olympia. Now he needs to follow up with an new openness.

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