Start of work on vit plant biggest story of 2002

Editor's note: The Herald is looking back as the first decade of the millennium wraps up. This is the second of a 10-day series recounting the top local news stories of that decade.

As the state and much of the nation struggled economically through 2002, the Mid-Columbia boomed.

The Herald's top story of the year was work beginning on the Hanford vitrification plant.

After at least 10 years of planning and debate, lead contractor Bechtel National began work on the "vit plant" in August. The project, still under construction today, is designed to tackle Hanford's worst environmental problem -- 53 million gallons of highly radioactive wastes in 177 underground tanks -- by melting it into a glass form for disposal.

Other top stories of 2002 were:

No. 2. As work began on the $5.6 billion vit plant, the Tri-Cities led the state in everything from job creation to housing starts. The economy was rosy enough to solidify the area's reputation as a regional shopping hub. Ross Dress For Less and Sportsman's Warehouse opened in Kennewick, and Richland's Columbia Point gained new businesses, including a Big 5 sporting goods store.

No. 3. After years of frustration, a group led by the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association and a coalition of cities reached an agreement to settle separate water rights lawsuits against the state Department of Ecology. The agreement, immediately appealed by an environmental group, would provide Pasco, Kennewick, Richland and West Richland an enormous water right for 50 years of growth in exchange for new conservation measures and regional water-use planning.

No. 4. The battle over shutdown of Hanford's Fast Flux Test Facility continued as the county filed suit in federal court. FFTF supporters were trying to find a private operator, but that proved difficult without DOE's support.

No. 5. Health care in the Tri-Cities was in turmoil as seniors struggled to find primary care doctors to treat them as Medicare reimbursement rates declined. Medicaid payments for treating poor patients also were slashed, and area hospitals were struggling. Still, Kadlec Medical Center in Richland completed renovation and expansion projects totaling about $51 million.

No. 6. The Legislature faced a $1.6 billion budget deficit when it convened in January. Marches and protests by health care workers, state employees, teachers and others regularly were held at the Capitol while lawmakers scrambled to find a budget fix.

No. 7. From Toppenish to Dayton, from Othello to Pendleton, 29 deaths were attributed to gunshots, arson, beatings, stabbings and alcohol-related car crashes. Among those awaiting trials were Kevin Hilton for the Richland shooting deaths in March of Larry and Josephine Ulrich, and DeLonde Pleasant for the Pasco beating death in March of Juanita Montelongo.

No. 8. Scientists won the Kennewick Man bones suit. The judge's ruling allowing study of the ancient remains immediately was appealed to the 9th Circuit Court by Northwest American Indian tribes, who felt study would desecrate an ancestor.

No. 9. The Army was closer to destroying the deadly chemical munitions stored at the Umatilla Chemical Depot. Washington Demilitarization, the Army's contractor, had employed more than 600 people and had started tests of the furnace that would burn the liquid sarin, VX and blister agent.

No. 10. The Kennewick Public Facilities District was hiring a design-build contractor for a $16.6 million convention center, and Benton County, Prosser, Pasco and Richland formed their own public facilities districts to snag tax money from the state to build a potential cultural arts center.