Our Voice: DOE deadlines settled, but budget fight continues

When it comes to disputes involving Hanford cleanup, at least one has been resolved.

U.S. Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson did an admirable job recently when she managed a compromise between the Department of Energy and the state of Washington.

She was tasked with finding her way through the maze of technical, environmental and legal issues surrounding DOE’s inability to keep to cleanup deadlines that were legally set by a court-enforced consent decree. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, exasperated by DOE’s excuses and requests for extensions, asked the court to intervene when the state and federal government could not agree on new deadlines.

Malouf Peterson established new Hanford targets, including the requirement that the Hanford vitrification plant be fully operational in 2036. This adds 14 years to the latest deadline set under the revised consent decree. Construction of the plant that will turn nuclear waste into a stable glass form began in 2002, but DOE officials said they ran into technical and financial setbacks along the way and could not keep the project on track.

At one point, DOE proposed a system of allowing near-automatic extensions so that new deadlines could be set if technical issues came up that caused delays.

Fortunately, the judge saw rthrough that suggestion.

She said providing a mechanism for automatic extensions would “create a vacuum in which DOE would be free to proceed at its own rate without safeguards for Washington or enforcement by the court.”

The whole point of setting deadlines is to make sure the work gets done. Malouf Peterson’s ruling appears to give DOE more time to accomplish its mission while still providing a way to hold the agency accountable. It’s a good call.

In her ruling, Malouf Peterson also set new deadlines for emptying the next group of leak-prone single shell tanks at Hanford and strengthens DOE’s reporting requirements. She said the public and the environment “only can lose as more time passes without an operational solution to the radioactive waste problems at the Hanford site.”

While a deadline of 2036 seems outrageously far ahead, at least we have a long-range goal and short-range plans to get there. Now we need the money to make it happen.

Antagonism between the state and DOE makes it harder for our federal lawmakers to justify to others in Washington, D.C., that Hanford cleanup requires consistent funding. Both the governor and the attorney general have said they would like to see more collaboration with DOE, which would help.

The Obama administration is proposing a $191 million reduction for the fiscal 2017 budget for the DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called the budget “inadequate” and “short-sighted” and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Gov. Inslee echoed her concern.

While the president’s budget includes more money for the Office of River Protection — responsible for the 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in underground tanks and the construction of the vitrification plant — cutting deep into the rest of Hanford cleanup funds would stall progress for other Hanford projects managed by Richland Operations.

The dispute over Hanford deadlines is settled, but the fight for cleanup money continues. Our congressional delegation must keep up the pressure, even if it has to be for another 20 years.