DOE, Ecology settle on Hanford deadline

The Department of Energy and Washington State Department of Ecology have reached agreement on a consent decree that sets new court-enforced deadlines for emptying Hanford tanks of radioactive waste and treating the waste.

They jointly filed a motion Wednesday in U.S. District Court, which will become final when it is approved and entered by a federal judge.

The decree gives DOE more time for important and difficult environmental cleanup work at Hanford but also requires DOE to answer directly to the court if it misses new deadlines.

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, state officials have said.

"We now have the full commitment of the federal government and an enforceable federal court order to ensure that the Hanford cleanup will stay on track," said Gov. Chris Gregoire in a statement.

The consent decree represents the beginning of a new level of accountability for the federal government for Hanford cleanup over the next 40 years, said Rob McKenna, Washington state attorney general, in a statement.

Among highlights of the decree are requirements 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.

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 focuses primarily on work to empty leak-prone tanks and treat the waste over the next 12 years.

In addition, new Tri-Party Agreement deadlines have been set to cover remaining tank farm and treatment work required through 2052. Tri-Party Agreement deadlines can be enforced with fines by the state and the Environmental Protection Agency.

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

Among the state's concerns was a budget then sufficient to empty just one tank a year -- a rate that would stretch work over more than a century. Hanford has 149 single-shell tanks, with seven of those emptied.

But talks fell apart under the Bush administration. In response, the state filed suit against DOE in 2008, which the consent decree resolves.

The decree filed Wednesday is nearly identical to a proposed settlement agreement announced in August 2009.

As state and federal leaders have worked toward a final agreement, one of the proposed deadlines has passed. DOE was to have all 28 technical issues raised by a technical review panel in 2006 resolved by the end of 2009 when the proposed settlement agreement was announced. That deadline has been extended to the end of 2010.

Among long-term deadline changes in the Tri-Party Agreement is extending the deadline for emptying all 149 of Hanford's oldest leak-prone tanks from 2018 until 2040. All waste would need to be treated by 2047 rather than the current 2028 deadline.

The 28 newer double-shell tanks would need to be emptied and closed in 2052.

The new agreement "will ensure our continued progress as we work to meet our commitments to the state of Washington to protect the environment, the public and the Columbia River," said Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

State and federal officials have said the new deadlines are realistic and achievable.

However, Heart of America Northwest announced Wednesday that it plans to ask the federal court to reject the consent decree because it allows for decades of delays in emptying Hanford's single-shell tanks. Additional leaks in those tanks are likely if work to empty them continues for three decades more, it said.

Since the proposed consent decree was announced, a new draft environmental study has indicated the risk to ground water at Hanford is greater than previously thought, said Gerald Pollet, executive director of the group.

The agreement was applauded by Washington's senators in written statements.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said it "represents a clear path forward toward our Hanford cleanup goals." Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called it long overdue and said it would speed transition to other productive uses of Hanford land, such as a clean energy park.

However, Murray and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., pointed out the need for responsible budgets to ensure the commitments in the new plan would be met.

w Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; more Hanford news at hanfordnews.com