(Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series looking back at the career of Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.)
Rep. Doc Hastings has 10 more months to be a thorn in the side of the Department of Energy before he retires from Congress.
The Hanford nuclear reservation has been a signature issue in his 10 terms in the House of Representatives.
He serves a district that extends from Canada to the Oregon state line. But — as he often says at public meetings — he can see the Hanford nuclear reservation across the Columbia River from his Pasco home.
He has worked to ensure government bureaucrats understand the expectations of the people of the Tri-City area, sending a steady stream of needling letters to officials in Washington, D.C.
He’s fought for Hanford-related spending bills in Congress, helping to ensure that $2 billion annually in DOE government spending for environmental cleanup keeps flowing.
And he has taken the lead to educate other members of Congress about Hanford’s environmental cleanup needs and the nation’s obligation to get the work done.
Hastings will focus on preserving Hanford’s B Reactor through creation of a new national park as the clock ticks down to his retirement, according to his staff. He’ll also continue to push for public access to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain.
And he wants to make sure that DOE is headed down the right path, to ensure that local wishes are respected in the future use of Hanford land and to make sure the cleanup of some of Hanford’s worst radioactive waste is accomplished.
Carl Adrian, president of the Tri-City Development Council, said Hastings recognizes that the nation has a moral and legal responsibility to clean up contamination at Hanford left from World War II and the Cold War.
Adrian credits Hastings for reaching across the political aisle to collaborate on Hanford issues with Washington’s two Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.
Murray acknowledged that collaboration when Hastings announced his retirement.“I am particularly grateful to have been able to work with Doc on ensuring the federal government lives up to its responsibility to clean up Hanford,” Murray said.
“I always knew that we had each other's back over the years when it came time to showing either the new Republican or Democrat in the White House that Hanford cleanup demanded their attention and that we were going to hold them accountable,” she said.
Even Fred Rumsey, the political committee chairman of the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, gives Hastings credit for working well with Murray to secure steady Hanford budgets.
“It’s no secret that I’ve never been a fan (of Hastings),” Rumsey said. “He hates the union. He’s very vocal about it.”
Many years Hastings succeeded in getting more Hanford cleanup money approved in the House than the administration requested. However, it’s usually Murray who does the heavy lifting, getting larger amounts approved in the Senate.
Hastings’ influence and support for the Hanford budget is critical as a conference committee meets to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the DOE budget, said Gary Petersen, TRIDEC vice president of Hanford programs.
But on at least one occasion, Hastings has voted against more money for Hanford.
The largest boost to Hanford cleanup spending was the one-time allocation of $1.96 billion in 2009 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Hastings split from Washington’s senators on the economic stimulus bill and voted against it, citing its overall cost. He feared it would be used as an excuse to cut future annual budgets at Hanford, he said.
He has long advocated for steady funding for Hanford, fighting deep drops or steep increases. Thousands of workers were hired as part of the stimulus. Thirty months later, when the money was gone, about 2,000 were laid off, including some longtime Hanford workers.
Pushing for tank waste cleanup
Hastings also influenced the Hanford budget in a less obvious way.
In 1998 he used legislation to split some of Hanford’s most critical and complex cleanup work into a separate DOE Hanford office — the Office of River Protection. It is responsible for emptying leak-prone underground tanks and getting the $12.3 billion vitrification plant built to turn the waste into a stable glass form for disposal.
The split not only focused attention on that work, but created a separate funding stream for it.
Construction on the vitrification plant started in 2002, and since then there have been delays and steep price increases. Work has stopped on key parts of the project to address technical issues that could affect the safe and efficient future operation of the plant, and DOE has said it is at risk of not having the plant at full operation by a court-enforced deadline of 2022.
Hastings would like to leave office with a workable plan in place for the vit plant, said Jessica Gleason, a member of his staff.
He’s criticized DOE for a lack of details about plans for the plant and told DOE officials that could jeopardize the project’s congressional funding.
That’s just some of the direction he’s given DOE about the vit plant and other projects.
He criticized a move, later reversed, to bypass Hanford management and give more oversight of the vit plant to officials in Washington, D.C.
And DOE did not shift money from Hanford to DOE cleanup sites elsewhere amidst budget uncertainty in 2013 after Hastings told DOE that would be “met with my strongest opposition.”
He’s used his influence to draw attention to and win support for Hanford, persuading House leaders to tour Hanford with him, including a former chairman of the Appropriation Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.
He also created the bipartisan Nuclear Cleanup Caucus in the House in 2000. The caucus has grown increasingly important as work at some DOE sites around the country has been completed, leaving fewer states with a stake in supporting funding for DOE environmental cleanup. The caucus educates and lobbies other congressional members on DOE environmental cleanup projects and needs.
Last chance for historic park?
Hastings’ final months in office are the “last and best” chance to create a Manhattan Project National Historical Park, Petersen said.
“What better legacy? It’s huge,” Petersen said.
The park is proposed to include not only Hanford’s B Reactor, but sites in New Mexico and Tennessee where work was done to create the world’s first atomic bombs, helping end World War II.
There will be no one in the House for many years who is likely to have the clout and interest to push national park legislation through to law, Petersen said.
“This is our year,” Petersen said. “If he doesn’t do it, we’re in real trouble.”
Hastings has railed against what he calls “the crushing burden of federal debt,” and expanding the national park program might not seem like a good fit with his fiscally conservative Republican views.
But if Hanford’s B Reactor — the world’s first production-scale nuclear reactor — is not saved, it will have to be “cocooned” or put in temporary storage at a cost of $13 million to $24 million, based on past work at Hanford, according to TRIDEC. Eventually it would need to be demolished. The estimated five-year cost of the park is $20 million.
Since becoming chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Hastings twice has led efforts that resulted in House approval of a Manhattan Project National Park, but the Senate so far has failed to pass a companion bill.
While Hastings waits, he has tried a second tactic. “It’s actually brilliant,” Petersen said.
A Manhattan Project National Historical Park would include defense sites, and a version of the National Defense Authorization Act has been passed each year for at least the past 50.
Hastings got the creation of the park attached to the 2014 act, which the House approved. However, when the Senate failed to act, a new bill was crafted that failed to include the amendment.
Looking to Hanford’s future
Hastings will leave office with plans for the future use of the site uncertain.
One of his recent projects has been pressuring DOE to speed the proposed transfer of 1,641 acres of surplus Hanford land to allow industrial development and help replace jobs lost as Hanford environmental cleanup progresses.
But he’s also interested in what he can do on a broader scale to set the stage in terms of life after Hanford cleanup at the 586-square-mile nuclear reservation, Gleason said.
“He wants to make sure that some process is in place, that the land is not just locked up by the federal government into perpetuity,” she said.
And he does not want Hanford’s future dictated by Washington, D.C.
He opposed turning the buffer area around Hanford into the Hanford Reach National Monument in 2000, advocating for a plan that would allow more local control. More recently, Hastings removed Hanford from a bill that would have locked up future land use decisions by designating parts of Hanford and other sites across the DOE complex as national environmental research projects.
Now he is working with Tri-Cities leaders, his colleagues in Congress and DOE to ensure maximum flexibility and local input as Hanford’s future is discussed, his staff said.
He’s had a prickly relationship with Mid-Columbia unions.
Appointments with union leaders have been canceled or ignored, Rumsey said.
“He has a poor record of doing the right thing for workers,” he said.
HAMTC and Hastings butted heads in 2012 about a proposal that union leaders believed would weaken safety standards at Hanford.
Hastings’ staff pointed out that he urged the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to approve a change in federal requirements in 2009 that allowed far more ill Hanford workers or their survivors to be compensated under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.
Listening to local government officials near Hanford has been one of Hastings’ strengths, said Kennewick Mayor Steve Young. Young also is chairman of the governing board of Hanford Communities, a coalition of Hanford-area local governments, and the secretary of the Energy Communities Alliance, a nationwide coalition of governments near DOE sites.
“We have become the envy of other cities in the DOE process,” Young said. “He brought us to the table with the DOE Richland Operations Office and Office of River Protection and headquarters.”
Although local leaders can tell DOE what the Tri-City community needs, it’s a more powerful message when it’s carried to DOE by a congressman, as Hastings has done, he said.
Hastings also has spent time helping local government leaders, many without a strong connection to Hanford, understand DOE issues, such as what the impacts of federal budget sequestration would be on Hanford, Young said.
Many years will be required to achieve the kind of influence Hastings now wields for the Tri-Cities, no matter who wins the 4th Congressional District seat, Petersen said. Multiple terms are required to be given assignments to important committees, like those that influence federal spending, he said.
“It’s a loss for Central Washington and the Tri-Cities,” Adrian said.