April 28, 2004
Waste reclassification talks stall
By Annette Cary
Herald staff writer
Talks appear to have stalled between the Department of Energy and Washington state in a yearlong disagreement over reclassifying high-level waste in Hanford tanks and at other DOE sites.
"We're at odds," said Sheryl Hutchison, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Ecology. "Talks have been unfruitful."
DOE has said it is seeking clarification and confirmation from Congress to continue to be able to classify nuclear waste at Hanford and elsewhere.
But the state believes proposed legislation to allow DOE to reclassify nuclear waste is unnecessary and could leave the state with too little authority.
At issue is how much waste could be left in the bottom of huge underground tanks that hold waste from processing plutonium produced at Hanford for weapons during World War II and the Cold War.
Through reclassification, more of the most difficult to remove waste might be left in the tanks rather than be removed and treated.
The matter could be settled through the courts. A federal judge last July ruled that DOE cannot reclassify high-level radioactive wastes on paper as being something less dangerous. The ruling is being appealed.
Alternately, DOE, Washington or other states involved in the dispute could persuade Congress to take action in their favor.
But in January, the Washington congressional delegation urged state leaders to take the initiative to establish high-level talks with DOE to resolve the issue.
The two sides appear to be little closer to reaching an agreement three months later.
"Some progress has been made, but some individuals on both sides seem a little too willing to let the courts resolve something the state and DOE should have worked out," said Jessica Gleason, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
Hastings urged the state to initiate talks in January and continues to believe the state and DOE have a responsibility to discuss the issue and work toward an agreement, Gleason said.
"Our sense is that DOE is going back to Congress with the language they want," Hutchison said.
A resolution of the court case could be years away, and the issue of closing underground tanks is too important to wait, said Joe Davis, spokesman for DOE headquarters.
"It is critical to find a solution," he said. "We have projects that will be jeopardized related to tank waste."
A legislative fix is possible that would give the state a say, he said.
"What DOE is proposing is allowing us with the state to move forward to close tanks," he said. "We would like the involvement of the state."
The state says DOE's proposed legislation calls for rulemaking to manage waste. It anticipates that under the rulemaking, DOE would shift oversight from a combined state and federal effort to an emphasis on federal oversight, according to the state.
"It seems to be a move to get the state out of its hair," Hutchison said.
Longterm, the state's authority on reclassifiation of waste would be "diminished or eliminated," she said.
The state does not agree any legislation is needed. But if any is passed it wants it to give deference to the Tri-Party Agreement, a legally binding pact among the state, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and DOE.
DOE says it is not proposing anything different than what is in the Tri-Party Agreement.
"We're not trying to leave anyone out of the decision," Davis said. "We do not want to leave the impression that DOE does not want to work with the states."