Hub of Hanford, a giant landfill, hits 20-year mark

Hanford landfill ERDF turns 20

Mike Casbon of Washington Closure Hanford has been assigned to the massive landfill since before it was built.
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Mike Casbon of Washington Closure Hanford has been assigned to the massive landfill since before it was built.

A huge hole in the ground at Hanford received accolades Wednesday.

The Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility, or ERDF, the massive landfill in central Hanford, turned 20 years old this month.

On its first day of operation, 20 tons of waste were disposed of, said Scott Sax, president of Washington Closure Hanford, the Department of Energy contractor for the project, at a celebration with employees. It was a single container.

Fifteen years later, on a record disposal day, 854 containers of waste — each holding 20 to 22 tons of waste — were dumped into the landfill.

“That’s in excess of 18,000 tons in one shift,” said Mike Casbon, ERDF resident engineer.

Casbon started on the project in 1993, when it was little more than a gleam in the eye of a Hanford official.

Now the landfill holds almost 18 million tons of contaminated soil and debris, including low-level radioactive and hazardous chemical waste.

There’s a saying at Hanford, repeated by Sax on Wednesday — if ERDF is not happy, nobody is happy.

Having a safe, engineered, monitored place to dispose of waste makes environmental cleanup of the nuclear reservation possible.

“We could not have done the cleanup we have without having an on-site disposal facility,” said Mark French, the Department of Energy project director.

The landfill is the hub of Hanford, as buildings are torn down and contaminated soil and debris dug up at the nuclear reservation. The waste was left from World War II and Cold War work to produce about two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

If that landfill were not available, taxpayers would have had to spend millions, if not billions, of dollars to ship the waste it holds off-site, said Doug Shoop, deputy manager of the DOE Richland Operations Office.

Less thorough Hanford cleanup likely would have been the result, said Dave Einan, an engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency, a regulator of Hanford. Decisions likely would have been made to leave more waste in the ground across the nuclear reservation and build caps over it.

ERDF is engineered to keep contamination in the waste from reaching the groundwater far beneath the landfill. At the bottom of the lined landfill is a system to collect any water that makes its way to the bottom while it remains open.

When the landfill is full, the water collection system will no longer be needed. A barrier will be placed over the top and desert plants will grow on it, soaking up the few inches of precipitation that fall in a normal weather year at Hanford.

The landfill is “part of the big success of river corridor cleanup,” said Alex Smith, manager of the state Department of Ecology’s nuclear waste program.

The majority of the waste it holds, about 16 million tons, comes from work to complete much of the cleanup of 220 square miles of Hanford along almost 50 miles of the Columbia River.

“ERDF is a key part of our groundwater program,” Sax said. “Why? Because we’ve eliminated the waste and the source (of the contamination) from 775 burial grounds on the river in the last 11 years.”

Groundwater there is not only closer to the surface of the ground, but once contamination reaches the groundwater, it’s a short journey to migrate to the river.

Over 20 years the landfill has received waste from more than 800 buildings and other facilities that have been torn down and about 1,300 waste sites. Some of it has been treated before placement in ERDF.

The drivers who have trucked the waste across Hanford to the landfill have logged about 30 million miles, or driven the equivalent of 1,200 trips around the world, Sax told workers.

With much of cleanup along the Columbia River completed, about 60 to 70 containers of debris are hauled to the landfill daily. Disposal should ramp up again as work picks up to clean up central Hanford in coming years.

Some waste disposal cells at the landfill, which covers the area of 52 football fields, already are filled and covered with temporary caps. Facing the need to expand once again, DOE is delaying the construction of another cell, and saving about $30 million, by executing a new plan to mound waste above ground level.

Rather than being level with the ground, the landfill will be closed as a mound that rises to 70 feet tall at its center.

Because of the cleanup ERDF has helped make possible along the Columbia River, a new national historical park has been able to open at Hanford, Shoop said.

Tribes are able to again spend time on their historic lands, and the public is starting to discuss public use of the land for outdoor activities.

“I tell everybody that ERDF is a national treasure,” Sax said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews