Hanford summit proposal takes aim at wrong target

An outsider's perspective is often valuable, and solutions are sometimes easier to spot from a distance.

But the Seattle-based Hanford Challenge's new project seems too far removed from Tri-City concerns to be of much use.

The group is planning a Hanford summit to bridge the gap between the east and west sides of the state over cleanup issues.

But it's a bridge to nowhere.

Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, presented his case for the summit in a column published in Sunday's Herald.

"For years, the issue of Hanford has polarized Eastern and Western Washington into pro-and anti-nuclear camps. It's a little tiresome," Carpenter wrote.

The Cascade curtain is real, of course. Voting patterns in virtually every election confirm the political divide that separates east from west.

But Hanford Challenge's proposal for closing the distance is based on too many faulty notions.

For starters, the effort is aimed at a pretty narrow gap. Northwesterners already agree on Hanford cleanup. We're united in the view that the federal government has a legal and moral obligation to take care of the toxic mess.

Everyone is frustrated with the pace. The vitrification plant that will treat 53 million gallons of deadly liquids in Hanford's underground tanks is taking years longer to build and costing billions more than anyone expected.

But workers are making real progress elsewhere. Over the next five years, the Department of Energy plans to shrink active cleanup to about 75 square miles at the center of the 586-square-mile site.

Continued progress depends on public pressure and outside oversight, and everyone in the Northwest has a stake in what happens. It would be too easy for the federal government to find other ways to spend the billions needed to finish the job.

But the Tri-Party Agreement gives Washington state the legal leverage needed to enforce compliance. Technical realities have caused some deadlines to slip, but the document has proved its power to force DOE's hand when necessary.

Public involvement is important, but the Hanford Advisory Board is fulfilling that role. The panel represents a wide spectrum of stakeholders, from both sides of the mountains.

Hanford Challenge's summit is supposed to take a broader view of cleanup, but it looks like a solution in search of a problem.

Carpenter and his organization do some important work at Hanford, helping contractors and workers resolve disputes through mediation.

As a result, money that might have been siphoned off to pay for legal costs and judgments has been used for cleanup instead.

But that's a secretive and narrowly focused process. It's not a model for the "big picture" agenda the summit is supposed to address.

Carpenter's instincts are right. There's an urgent need for a broader dialogue. He's wrong about the focus, however.

The structure already exists to ensure cleanup is covered. Post-cleanup is another matter.

The economic future of the state depends in part on what happens at Hanford when the job is done, and that topic is barely discussed.

It will be important to hear everyone's ideas on that topic, but it's not a conversation that can be led from Seattle.

Thanks but no thanks, Hanford Challenge.