Public Hearing on the Future of Hanford Cleanup – March 23, 2006

On March 22, 2006, the RNA along with Columbia Riverkeeper, Hanford Watch, Heart of America, and other volunteers attended a public hearing at the Red Lion Convention Center in Portland to discuss proposed cleanup efforts at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. This meeting was facilitated by the US Department of Energy (USDOE), and the Washington State Department of Ecology. This was a “scoping” meeting, where members of the public could state for the record what they wanted to see in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This EIS is specific to Tank Closure and Toxic Waste Management under the National Environmental Policy Act. This EIS is positioned to set a national precedent that could effect the process of cleanup of nuclear waste anywhere in the US, and this is now the legacy facing the people of Washington State. Never before has the federal government attempted to combine complex separate cleanup tasks into one “Mega-EIS” process, a process that is fraught with dangerous problems. Many who attended this meeting and others throughout the state, testified to their distrust of the USDOE due to previous errors in scientific study, cost overruns, a lack of credible data to qualify and quantify the degree of toxic contamination at the site, the feeling that the government is ignoring the concerns of the public, and horrendous delays in the cleanup process, and plain sloppy handling of nuclear waste. In short, many believe that the USDOE is not competent in its handling of the Hanford mess, and requests were made for an independent contractor (one not tied to the USDOE) to perform the task of creating a competent and credible EIS for this phase of the cleanup process. The Washington State Department of Ecology previously filed suit against the USDOE for inadequacy of earlier EIS studies at Hanford, and then negotiated settlement in a cooperative effort to improve scientific analysis at the site and foster a better cleanup program.

If completed, the Mega- EIS could affect the following:

* Whether groundwater and contaminated burial grounds are ever cleaned up,
* Whether Hanford becomes a radioactive waste dump and whether more waste is shipped to the site.
* Whether the remaining 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste in the tanks is cleaned or left in place.
* Whether the future of the Columbia River is protected

USDOE boldly claims to be able to complete the daunting task of mapping a scientific study platform and completing the study all within two years’ time. Many attendees scoffed at this timeline, claiming the mad rush would only lead to more costly mistakes and sloppy handling of radioactive waste. The purpose of this EIS is to recommend how the USDOE will dispose of nuclear sludge that is housed in more than 150 silos within the Hanford Tank Farm among other serious issues. Work has begun to remove the sludge and, through the vitrification process, encase the waste in glass in order to prevent it from contaminating the soils, ground and surface waters, including the Columbia River. Originally, Hanford architects portrayed that the tank farms would contain the nuclear sludge for at least 2000 years — only forty years later, the silos have failed, and toxic plumes are known to exist beneath. Model studies supplied by Heart of America indicate that the toxicants have pooled and nearly entered the water table. However, according to other data gathered in the Lower Columbia River Basin, radioactive particles are already identified in the river’s flow in the Vancouver area, and leaves of willow trees on the banks of the river contain background radiation that is at least 300 times the natural level. This is extremely important in that municipalities all along the Columbia River are dependent on the river for potable water supplies and for irrigation. The Columbia River feeds various municipal water wells for communities that are groundwater dependent, and continued elevations of radioactive particulates within the water supply could induce widespread disease throughout the pacific northwest, including various cancers and degenerative nerve disorders. It is widely known that populations close to the Hanford facility suffer increasingly from these wasting diseases, and according to Heart of America, the USDOE statistics on human health risks indicate that a 50% exposure rate to these wasting diseases among children is acceptable due to Hanford contamination. Various attendees at this public meeting voiced concerns that the USDOE has horribly undervalued the human health risks this community is facing from one of the worst nuclear spill sites in the country.

In 2004, the voters of Washington State passed Initiative 297 by a whopping 70% majority to forbid any more nuclear waste from being imported into the state of Washington. The USDOE is attempting to overturn this initiative in the courts in order to open Hanford as a nuclear waste receiving station, where tens of thousands of pounds of radioactive waste could be shipped from all over the world. Such nuclear waste would be transported by truck through large cities such as Portland, OR and Bellevue, WA. A traffic accident and/or explosion within a truck that is hauling radioactive material could cause a field of contamination to spread outward at least 300 miles. This proposal is completely irresponsible to the American public. Furthermore, Mary Beth Burandt, the USDOE representative, attempted to pacify the attendees by explaining some of the transported nuclear waste would “eventually” end up at the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada. However, the voters of the state of Nevada have also passed a moratorium on the import of nuclear waste into that state, so it appears that the USDOE is attempting to completely override state’s rights on this issue. The public voiced concerns that Hanford waste should not be shipped elsewhere in the country, but should be safely contained.

The proposed EIS may call for a “wrap and cap” scenario, where the leaking silos are sealed with cement, or fitted with permanent lids to prevent access to the enclosed sludge — many voiced their objections to this alternative, insisting that the sludge needed to be penitently removed. Another alternative called for the removal of some of the sludge, leaving remnants within the tanks. The public clearly voiced that the sludge needed to be completely drained in order to halt the leakage of toxicants into the ground and water.

The RNA was well organized for this public hearing, and had a large contingent present with many speakers for the public record. All comments were court reported. The Columbia Riverkeeper and Heart of America made a presentation to interested attendees prior to the public hearing in order to present its concerns about the weakness of USDOE’s performance, and how to bolster the public’s input in this crucial process.

RNA’s comments at the public hearing included the following:

* It is known that scrap from the Hanford facility, such as used metal pipes and other components, have been parted out to private industry, such as the Westinghouse Corporation. There was a public request that such practices discontinue and for USDOE to remain in possession of all Hanford components in perpetuity.

* USDOE must abide by the voters of Washington State who passed an initiative to desist from all plans of importing nuclear waste into our state.

* The EIS must include a detailed water modeling plan and hydrogeologic study that includes Columbia River tidal influences, dam releases, influences from spring freshets, stormwater studies, erosion control studies, bio-assessment of cumulative effects of toxicants in fish tissue, micro-organisms, river sediments, and municipal water supplies throughout the region.

* The unacceptable dangers to the public health and safety by transporting nuclear waste throughout the state

* To completely remove all dangerous nuclear waste from the environment in order to protect the health and safety of future generations

* To devise scientific studies that will address obvious and substantial data gaps relative to the degree of contamination on the site

* To work cooperatively with state and local entities, including independent contractors and citizen panels to draft the EIS

* For the Department of Ecology to enforce Best Management Practices and ensure public health and safety and environmental regulations are upheld to the full extent of the law

* The recommendations outlined in the final EIS should be enforceable through a consent decree that will prevent more lengthy delays and declines in level of cleanup at the site

* For the timetable to complete the EIS to be lengthened in order to ensure a viable and credible cleanup plan

* For the EIS to be written in commonly understood language, void of legalese and abbreviations that prevent the public’s understanding of the document

There were many memorable and impassioned statements from the public at this meeting, some stating that they had been attending to the problems at Hanford for a great many years, all with frustration, anger and disgust at the government’s failure to clean up the mess. Columbia Riverkeeper forewarned that the EIS should include viable protections for Endangered Species, such as salmon in the Columbia River, or the USDOE will be facing yet another lawsuit. One elder demanded that a crop of vegetables be planted at Hanford, and that the facility would be considered clean when the US President could safely eat those vegetables at his own dinner table. One man, a Hanford employee, revealed his own health difficulties resulting from his exposure to the facility. Some reflected on the devastation suffered by the Native American tribes and other populations because of Hanford waste. There were health care givers, water stewards, accountants, lawyers, fishermen, teachers, environmentalists, and volunteers of every age. One woman asked the officials to take fifteen seconds to really look at the faces of the people who were testifying — these people are the heart and soul of the pacific northwest, and they demand accountability on this nationally important issue.

The RNA is grateful for the leadership of the Columbia Riverkeeper, Hanford Watch, and Heart of America organizations, and the many devoted volunteers whose valiant efforts to bring these matters before the public for many years.

To learn more about this new Environmental Impact Statement please review the PDF of the Citizen’s Guide.

CITIZEN’S GUIDE (Adobe PDF format)

USDOE will be seeking comments on the scope for the new EIS. The public comment period began February 2 and ends on April 10, 2006. You can submit written comments or phone in your comments. (The final public meeting will be held March 28 in Pasco, Washington, where comments can be made in person.)

A comment form is available for public written comments, please send them to:

COMMENT FORM (Adobe PDF format)

Mary Beth Burandt, Document Manager
Office of River Protection
U.S. Department of Energy
PO Box 450, Mail Stop H6-60
Richland, WA 99352
Fax 509-376-3661, Phone 888-829-6347

To view related documents on the EIS visit:

Comment is closed.

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