Hanford land use, vapors, lab shutdown topics at State of the Site

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldApril 29, 2014 

Preserving Hanford's shrub steppe wildland, protecting workers from tank vapors and the shutdown of a major Hanford laboratory dominated comments at Hanford's State of the Site meeting Tuesday in Richland.

About 250 people attended the meeting, a larger turnout than at State of the Site meetings earlier this month in Seattle, Portland and Hood River, Ore.

The meetings provide a chance for the Department of Energy, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency to update the public on the cleanup progress of contamination left from the past production of weapons plutonium. And they give workers and the public a chance to ask questions of top Hanford managers and regulators.

Rick Lamont of the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society said when the Hanford Reach National Monument was created out of the security zone around Hanford in 2000, it was with the understanding that more land would be added as portions of the production area of Hanford were cleaned up.

With much of the cleanup on 220 square miles of land along the Columbia River soon to be completed, the Department of Energy needs to keep its word, he said.

"Turn it over to the monument so these resources can be preserved," he said.

Laurie Ness, a lifelong Tri-City resident and retired wildlife biologist, said there should be very limited access allowed. Plants, animals and birds on Hanford's shrub steppe habitat cannot survive with too much disturbance, she said.

The habitat will be lost if people cannot recognize it as special or if there's a land grab by business interests or others for newly cleaned up areas, she said.

A member of the Friends of the Mid-Columbia River Wildlife Refuges read a statement from the group saying that it supports expansion of the monument. Ecologically sensitive areas should be protected and public access should be allowed elsewhere, the statement said.

DOE is working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a management plan as the area along the river corridor is cleaned up, said Doug Shoop, deputy manager of the Hanford DOE Richland Operations Office.

There should be some public access, some tribal access and protection of natural resources, he said.

On tank vapors, Mike Geffre, who identified himself as a concerned citizen, said he had watched his friends fall ill from chemical vapors that vent from Hanford's underground waste tanks. Most recently, 28 workers have received medical evaluations after possible exposure to vapors this spring.

He challenged Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, to agree that the vapors can cause health problems and even death.

It's true they can cause health issues and, in extreme cases, death, Smith said. The reaction to the vapors depends on an individual's physiology, he said.

"We're actually on the same side," he said. Smith said he is committed to protecting workers from tank vapors.

About a dozen workers at the Waste Sampling and Characterizaton Facility attended the meeting after DOE announced plans in March to shut down the Hanford laboratory.

The lab receives leaking vials of waste samples and those without proper chain of custody, said Ann Lambel, a worker at the lab. After the lab shuts down, she expects the samples to be sent to labs in Utah and Georgia. She questioned how DOE could protect the public, particularly without lab workers at Hanford, to take quick action in case of a problem.

The Richland Operations Office, which is responsible for all Hanford work except tank waste retrieval and treatment, is facing a possible declining budget, Shoop said. It could see a budget cut of $100 million in fiscal 2015. Between that and the hundreds of millions needed to maintain Hanford and keep it in a safe and secure condition, that could leave just $400 million for its cleanup work next year, he said.

"We are forced to make very, very difficult decisions," he said

Closing the lab could save $10 million a year, he said. DOE cleanup sites in Idaho and South Carolina plus Washington Closure Hanford, the Hanford river corridor contractor, already send waste samples off-site for analysis, he said.

The Waste Sampling and Characterization Facility analyzes samples of air, water, soil, vapor and sludge with trace amounts of chemicals and radioactive material from Hanford surveillance and monitoring activities.

"Do you want people who live here telling you Hanford is clean or people in Savannah River, (S.C.), who don't know Hanford telling you it is clean?" asked a man who did not identify himself.

Lambel said rather than shutting down the laboratory building to save overhead as DOE has proposed, other Hanford contractors are looking at using it for their projects.

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

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