Public influence seen in new Hanford cleanup deadlines

Work to prepare for assessing the condition of the PUREX processing plant’s underground waste storage tunnels is required to start in 2017 under a new deadline.
Work to prepare for assessing the condition of the PUREX processing plant’s underground waste storage tunnels is required to start in 2017 under a new deadline. Courtesy DOE

The influence by the public can be seen in a major set of extensions to environmental cleanup deadlines newly approved by the Department of Energy and its regulators.

In fall 2015, the Tri-Party agencies — DOE, the state Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency — proposed extending deadlines for work in central Hanford and some of the last cleanup work to be completed along the Columbia River.

Those deadlines have been adopted by the Tri-Party agencies, they announced Thursday. But some substantial changes to the package of deadlines were made based on public comments.

“The public was really clear in its values during the public comment period,” said John Price, the Tri-Party agreement section manager of the Department of Ecology. “We appreciated the feedback from the public and agree on the new milestones DOE added.”

The same issues resonated from public meeting to public meeting, whether in the Tri-Cities or elsewhere in Washington and Oregon, said Dennis Faulk, Hanford program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Many people attending public meetings on the proposed new deadlines said they were not comfortable with a decision to remove a deadline calling for most cleanup in central Hanford to be completed in fall 2024 and replace it with “to be determined.”

The new deadline for the work was to be determined after studies are completed on the extent of contamination and how it should be addressed.

The newly approved deadlines are among the most significant changes in the Tri-Party Agreement’s 27-year history.

In response to public concerns, a new deadline of 2042 has been set. It would cover central Hanford cleanup other than the huge facilities that processed irradiated fuel to separate out plutonium for the nation’s weapons program and the underground tanks storing radioactive waste from fuel processing.

This and other central Hanford work has fallen behind schedule because of a decision made to focus resources on Hanford cleanup closest to the Columbia River for much of the last decade.

The Richland Operations Office would have needed $1.7 billion this year to work toward meeting the original deadlines and even then could not have physically accomplished the work, Faulk said. The office has a budget of about $990 million this year and the Obama administration has proposed $800 million for next year.

Public concerns also persuaded the agencies to add some new deadlines to the Tri-Party agreement.

▪  The changes proposed and approved by the agencies give DOE three more years, until September 2021, to complete cleanup of the 324 Building, which has a highly radioactive spill beneath it. An additional deadline has been added requiring that most of the cleanup of the spill be completed in September 2019. The site is just north of Richland and near the Columbia River.

▪  DOE must start some work toward assessing the condition of waste disposal tunnels near the PUREX processing plant by September 2017. They potentially are a high-risk area.

▪  Work must start by September 2018 to characterize the waste in unlined burial grounds in central Hanford. The trenches were used to dispose of waste that may be contaminated with plutonium before 1970.

$1.2 billion estimated annual cost for all Richland Operations Office work with addition of new deadlines

Other deadlines, which remain unchanged since the initial proposal, include submitting dates for the start of cleanup of the main fuel processing facilities in 2026. They also include extending the date 10 years from the current year to complete studies of contamination and possible methods of cleanup of key central Hanford areas until 2026.

Price said when the package of changes were proposed that they are among the 10 most significant in the Tri-Party agreement’s history. Since it was signed 27 years ago, more than 450 changes have been made.

The new changes are based on realistic budget outlooks, unlike past negotiations, in which regulators generally told DOE to obtain the money needed, Faulk said.

The changes, in addition to other required work, still would require Richland Operations Office budgets of about $1.2 billion annually, rather than the more typical recent budgets of close to $1 billion per year.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews