Judge signs Hanford consent degree

A federal judge has signed a consent decree, the final step in giving the Department of Energy new court-enforced Hanford deadlines for emptying leak-prone tanks of radioactive waste and treating the waste.

DOE and the Washington State Department of Ecology signed the agreement earlier this month.

The decree gives DOE more time for key, but difficult, environmental cleanup work at the Hanford nuclear reservation. In return it requires DOE to answer directly to the court if it misses new deadlines.

"This consent decree shows that America will keep its promises to clean up the toxic legacy of nuclear weapons development at Hanford," said Gov. Chris Gregoire, in a statement.

The state began negotiating a new agreement with DOE in 2007 after it became clear DOE could not meet the Tri-Party Agreement deadlines for treating waste and had already missed a significant deadline for emptying waste from 16 tanks.

When talks fell apart under the Bush administration, Washington state filed a lawsuit against DOE in 2008. Oregon joined the lawsuit later.

The consent decree resolves the lawsuit.

"This effort represents a positive model of collaboration between multiple states and federal entities," said Ines Triay, DOE assistant secretary for environmental management, in a statement. "The end result is a sound agreement with aggressive yet achievable milestones for Hanford tank waste cleanup."

The consent decree opens a new chapter in the long effort to establish an enforceable and achievable schedule to clean up waste stored in underground tanks, said Rob McKenna, Washington state's attorney general.

The consent decree requires that DOE begin operating the vitrification plant by 2019 to treat up to 53 million gallons of radioactive waste now held in underground tanks and have the plant fully operating by 2022. The previous deadline in the Tri-Party Agreement required the plant to begin operating in 2011.

To make sure the new vit plant deadlines are met, the consent decree also includes "pacing" deadlines, such as when different buildings on the plant's campus must have structural steel or concrete floor slabs in place at different elevations.

The consent decree also requires that waste in all 16 leak-prone tanks in the group called C Tank Farm be emptied into newer double shell tanks by 2014. Nine additional tanks would be required to be emptied by 2022.

The consent decree is one piece of a two-part package to settle the lawsuit. In addition, new longer term deadlines have been set in the Tri-Party Agreement that took effect with the signing of the consent decree.

They include extending the deadline for emptying all 149 of Hanford's single-shell tanks into newer double-shell tanks from 2018-40. The waste would need to be treated for disposal by 2047 rather than the previous 2028 deadline.

"The radioactive and hazardous waste will be removed from those huge, leak-prone underground storage tanks," Gregoire said. "The Columbia River -- and a million people who live and work downstream from Hanford -- will be protected from contamination."

The consent decree was signed by Judge Fred Van Sickle in Eastern Washington District Court in Spokane.