The Yakama Nation is preparing to sue the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency over cleanup plans for the Hanford 300 Area just north of Richland.
The Yakama Tribal Council notified the two agencies that it plans to challenge the final cleanup decision in federal court. A lawsuit could be filed after a legal notice period as soon as Dec. 9.
The final plan does not protect people and the environment as required by law, the tribe said in a statement Thursday. It wants a more aggressive plan for cleanup of uranium and other contaminants in the groundwater and stricter standards than those set for industrial areas to be used to complete environmental cleanup.
The tribe said it is not seeking a financial settlement in the lawsuit, but wants a ruling requiring DOE and EPA to come up with a more robust plan to protect the nearby Columbia River and the health of future generations.
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DOE and its regulators issued a decision adopting the final cleanup plan for the 300 Area in December. It is the first of six final plans that will cover 220 square miles along the Columbia River.
Cleanup of the 300 Area’s 40 square miles has been under way since the 1990s, and most of it is expected to be completed by next fall. Work was done under interim cleanup decisions.
DOE used the 300 Area to fabricate uranium fuel for nine Hanford reactors that produced plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program during World War II and the Cold War. Workers buried solid waste from fuel fabrication and research conducted there, and discharged liquid waste into the soil.
Using an industrial cleanup standard for the area does not meet requirements for the ways the area might be used post-cleanup, the Yakama Nation said in its notice to the federal government.
When the final cleanup plan was adopted, DOE said that it planned cleanup to standards needed for unrestricted surface use of the land.
But the Hanford land use plan calls for continued industrial use of the 300 Area. Industrial standards cannot be used if there are no fences to keep people out, groundwater migrates off the site into the Columbia River. There also could be future commercial, residential, tribal and recreational uses that will expose children, it said.
The tribe said uranium, tritium, nitrate and volatile organic chemicals like trichloroethene contaminate the groundwater beneath the 300 Area.
The approved plan is to let groundwater contaminants gradually dissipate over time, with some extra help for uranium contamination.
The Yakama Nation said there is no evidence that natural dissipation is a viable remedy for the contamination. The decision also does not consider that contaminants in central Hanford groundwater could migrate toward the 300 Area and compound contamination there.
The tribe also questions the plan to add a binding solution to the soil to reduce the movement of uranium contamination to the groundwater while contamination in the groundwater dissipates over time. Phosphate would be added, which combines with uranium to create a uranium phosphate mineral that does not readily dissolve.
DOE said in December that it has studied the issue of uranium-contaminated groundwater for more than two decades, and no better method is on the horizon.
About 330 pounds of uranium per year is released to Columbia River from the Hanford 300 Area, according to DOE. But three irrigation outlets on the Franklin County side of the river release 3,500 pounds of uranium a year into the river from fertilizer and uranium that is naturally in the ground. In addition, the Yakima River adds about 8,800 pounds a year.
Digging up the contaminated soil is not an option, DOE said in December. It would cost more than $1 billion and would fill an area measuring 1,000 feet by 1,000 feet in the 70-foot-deep lined landfill in central Hanford.