Groups holding unofficial Hanford State of the Site meetings

Four Northwest groups are holding their own versions of Hanford State of the Site meetings after learning that the Department of Energy did not plan any this year.

Columbia Riverkeeper, Hanford Challenge, Heart of America Northwest and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility have organized the meetings in three Washington communities. A meeting has been held in Spokane and more are planned in Vancouver and Walla Walla.

The DOE Hanford State of the Site meetings have provided a chance for DOE and its regulators to update the public on progress to clean up contamination left from the past production of weapons plutonium. And they give workers, retirees and the public a chance to raise issues and ask questions of top Hanford officials.

The State of the Site meeting held in Richland last spring drew a crowd of 250 people with questions about preserving Hanford’s shrub steppe wildland, protecting workers from tank vapors and the shutdown of a major Hanford laboratory, among other topics.

The meetings have been held sporadically in recent years. A meeting planned in fall 2013 was canceled when the federal government was shut down because of federal budget issues. Previous meetings were held in 2011 and 2008. Typically a meeting is held in the Tri-Cities, plus a couple more in Washington and Oregon.

The Hanford Advisory Board recommended in 2012 that DOE resume annual State of the Site meetings.

The meetings “create a unique environment, unlike the environment one typically finds during more formal public comment periods, for the discussion of Hanford cleanup issues,” the board said in a letter of advice sent to DOE and its regulators.

The less-formal atmosphere of the State of the Site meetings helps establish a healthy working relationship among DOE and its regulators, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Washington, improving understanding when they have formal comment periods and hearings on specific projects, the board said.

DOE pointed out that although it has scheduled no State of the Site meeting this year, it will hold a public budget workshop at 5:30 p.m. April 28 at the Richland Public Library. DOE will discuss projects and budgets, which is the same type of information it would discuss at a State of the Site meeting, according to a DOE statement.

The meeting is in conjunction with a public comment period that starts April 28 on DOE’s fiscal 2017 budget and cleanup priorities. Budget meetings will not be held in other communities, but people can participate remotely via the internet.

The groups organizing the unofficial State of the Site meetings this spring have scheduled them in communities that have not had many Hanford meetings in the last decade. Hanford cleanup is a statewide and national issue, said Daniel Noonan, project manager for Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology have representatives participating and giving presentations at the meetings, and EPA has encouraged DOE to do the same.

DOE has no apparent plans to participate.

“We are looking at opportunities and resources to see if it makes sense to hold the next round of State of the Site meetings,” DOE said in a statement.

The unofficial Spokane meeting this spring had a small turnout — about 10 people, according to reports — but yielded a “rich conversation,” said Dennis Faulk, EPA Hanford program manager.

Questions were asked about the budget, tank vapors, continued delays at the Hanford vitrification plant, why cleanup takes so long and costs so much, and small modular nuclear reactors, said Dieter Bohrmann, the Department of Ecology lead for Hanford public involvement. Advocates of the small reactors have proposed their use to provide power for the vitrification plant.

“We feel it is important to address public concerns in an open forum, whether hosted by agencies or stakeholder groups,” Bohrmann said. Faulk echoed that, saying any time EPA staff can support a legitimate public meeting, it will.

Faulk said he is an advocate of State of the Site meetings, but they fall on DOE to organize and require significant work by DOE.

The agencies planning the unofficial State of the Site meetings this year said in an announcement that environmental cleanup progress had been made, but missed deadlines and worker safety concerns continue to plague Hanford.

“Residents through the Pacific Northwest have a huge stake in the cleanup effort at Hanford and we are reaching out to help give them a greater voice in the process,” said Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper.

It is critical that decisions about how much contamination to clean up and and how much to leave behind are informed by community values, said Liz Mattson, outreach director for Hanford Challenge.

“Citizen engagement in this process helps to ensure that human health and safety is the highest priority at Hanford, both today and hundreds of years from now, Noonan said.