If Energy Secretary Steven Chu isn't glancing nervously over his shoulder these days, he ought to be.
That's Washington state breathing down his neck, and that's never been comfortable for the Department of Energy.
Chu recently told Congress that there is a risk the Hanford vitrification plant might not be operating as scheduled in 2019.
The admission came under questioning earlier this month by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and you can bet Chu's answer was was heard in Olympia.
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We haven't yet heard how Gov. Chris Gregoire or state Attorney General Rob McKenna will react, but based on past performance, the Obama administration can expect some backlash.
Here's what Gregoire told DOE in 2006, when the funding request for the vit plant fell short of needs:
"Washington will not sit idly by while the United States government breaks its promises to the people of our state and puts our health and resources at risk."
The law is on her side. The Tri-Party Agreement, the legally binding compact between the state, DOE and federal Environmental Protection Agency, has been amended many times to extend cleanup deadlines.
But cooperation from the state on altering the plan depends on DOE presenting solid technical grounds for delays.
So far, that doesn't seem to be the case in this latest warning from Chu.
The Energy Secretary appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to provide testimony on the Obama administration's request for DOE's fiscal 2013 budget.
The proposal would reduce vitrification plant funding to $690 million, which is $50 million below current spending and $280 million below the figure needed to keep the project on track to begin operations in 2019.
"That funding profile is not in the cards anymore because of our budgets," Chu said. "So because of that, we know that there is a risk that could slip (the) schedule."
The Tri-Party Agreement obligates the administration to seek enough money to meet the pact's milestones. And no deadline is more important than the start of vit plant operations.
The $12.2 billion project will treat high-level radioactive liquids stored in underground tanks, keeping the deadly materials safely isolated from the Columbia River.
But only if the plant is completed.
The executive branch can't force Congress to allocate more money for the vitrification plant, but it has a moral and legal obligation to pursue enough money to complete the project on time.
We're not convinced that is happening.
Fortunately, the state has shown its willingness to hold DOE's feet to the fire when necessary. If Chu can't make a convincing case that technical -- not financial -- issues warrant a new schedule, then the judicial system might offer the only remedy.
We hope not. A negotiated settlement with all parties acting in good faith is the preferred alternative to resolving TPA disputes.
But that won't work if it appears DOE is putting budget considerations ahead of environmental concerns.
Chu ought to be worried about this ending up in court. If Washington thinks it has a case, the odds aren't good for DOE.
Such lawsuits are rare, but the state has never lost a legal battle over Hanford cleanup.
That's something worth thinking about at budget time.