Washington voters will decide if more waste goes to Hanford
Oregon has little say over nuclear waste bound for the Hanford reservation over state highways
June 20, 2004
SEATTLE -- The decision about whether to let thousands of truckloads of radioactive waste rumble across Oregon highways is, strangely enough, in the hands of Washington voters.
Washington Initiative 297 would stop the U.S. Department of Energy from using the Hanford Nuclear Reservation as a national dump for "hot" trash from weapons stations across the country until the reservation's existing mess is cleaned up.
On the surface, it looks like a Washington issue. After all, Hanford, an atomic-bomb-making relic that turned into North America's most polluted morass, is located in southeastern Washington.
But the expressways for potentially tens of thousands of truckloads of Hanford-bound garbage would cut through Oregon. The amount of radioactive trash rolling north on Interstates 5 and 84 could increase tenfold and continue at that pace for 40 years if the Energy Department has its way.
Oregon and Washington state officials are questioning many aspects of the plan, including its vulnerability to terrorism and radioactive traffic accidents, as well as its potential to further contaminate groundwater beneath Hanford, which leaks into the Columbia River.
The federal government has carefully weighed the concerns of Washington and Oregon, says Colleen Clark, spokeswoman for the federal energy agency. She says the department believes its plan is safe and won't significantly increase highway risks or Hanford's pollution problems.
Moreover, Hanford "is the clear beneficiary" of interstate waste transfers in the long run, she says. That's because Hanford will ultimately send far deadlier and far more waste to Nevada and New Mexico than it would receive from other states.
Michael Grainey, director of the Oregon Department of Energy, which monitors Hanford policies, isn't convinced. "Obviously, when you increase the number of shipments dramatically, you increase the risks," he says.
But Grainey is more concerned about further jeopardizing the health of the Columbia River than he is about larger convoys of nuclear garbage trucks.
"We've got enough problems with the waste that's already there," Grainey says. "Until that waste has been disposed of safely at Hanford, we don't think there should be any consideration to sending huge amounts of waste there."
Precisely how many trucks the Energy Department would route to Hanford won't be known until the plan is updated later this year. But most would pass through Oregon and spend far more highway time in Oregon than in Washington.
Most Hanford-bound loads only cross 50 miles of Washington pavement, from the Oregon border at Umatilla to the 586-square-mile nuclear reservation. By contrast, Hanford-bound trucks routinely travel 200 miles through Eastern Oregon along I-84 and occasionally 400 miles through Western and Northern Oregon if they roll up I-5, then head up the Columbia River Gorge on I-84.
Under current policies, Hanford annually accepts about 800 cubic meters of low-level waste from weapons stations and labs. That's the equivalent of about 55 trucks carrying 70 55-gallon barrels worth of waste. The Energy Department's environmental analysis of its proposed policy shift recommends increasing the inbound traffic to as many as 600 such trucks a year until the year 2046.
Clark, of the Energy Department, emphasizes that most of the incoming trash would not be highly radioactive, but rather an assortment of mildly contaminated soil, clothing, tools and other refuse.
A review of Energy Department documents, however, indicates workers often encounter alarmingly radioactive or toxic materials even in so-called low-level waste streams coming to the site. In a 1996 memo, for example, a Hanford contract worker flagged his boss about a mysterious highly radioactive disc. The memo describes it as a "Frisbee from hell!"
Part of the Hanford plan also calls for potentially accepting hundreds of truckloads of highly radioactive transuranic wastes that are so hot they have to be shielded in thick, heavy casks. Such materials are usually contaminated with plutonium, which is widely used as a main ingredient in nuclear weapons.
Hanford was receiving occasional transuranic shipments until a legal challenge last year by Washington state and two activist groups persuaded a federal judge to force the Energy Department to at least temporarily stop. That injunction came six months after three Hanford-bound transuranic truckloads tripped alarms in Oregon.
In that December 2002 incident, the Oregon Department of Transportation mistakenly approved overweight permits to three truck shipments of radioactive waste, including some transuranic waste. If Ken Niles, nuclear safety director for the Oregon Department of Energy, hadn't intervened, the trucks, each weighing over 80,000 pounds, would have been directed onto secondary roads through small communities and around weight-restricted highway bridges.
"The permits were given without consideration to the nature of the cargo," Niles says. "The issue is in the winter, especially. We didn't want the trucks out running alone on two-lane highways that may or may not have been plowed."
If the Energy Department gets the green light to roll more trucks through Oregon, the chance of radiation releases and accidents escalates, warns Hyun Lee, counsel to Heart of America Northwest, a Seattle-based Hanford watchdog group and the I-297 sponsor.
"This is some of the scariest stuff humans ever made going back and forth across the highway," Lee says. "It's a scary game of hot potato. You don't want this stuff in your neighborhood."
Hanford issues usually lurk beneath the surface of general public discussion. The central debate during the past 15 years has been how much money to spend on the cleanup -- usually about $2 billion a year -- and arguments about why it has gone so much slower than scheduled.
Yet several prominent Hanford issues came to a boil almost simultaneously this year as the Bush administration pursued cheaper and quicker ways to clean up nuclear weapons plants throughout the country.
A key feature of the administration's plan consolidates wastes at several Energy Department facilities -- including Hanford -- while final storage sites and conditions are completed in Nevada and New Mexico.
There also is a push to reclassify some of the most lethal waste -- to rename it "incidental waste" -- such that it can be mixed with concrete and left in tanks on site, replacing far more expensive disposal strategies.
Nine members of Washington's and Oregon's congressional delegations signed an April 29 letter to energy Secretary Spencer Abraham objecting to any plans to use Hanford as a national dump for other waste stations.
Citing terrorism concerns, the letter also scolded his agency for planning to dramatically increase the amount of radioactive waste trucked through populous communities along I-5 and I-84.
Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats' presumed nominee for president, sees Hanford as a strong election issue. He has repeatedly criticized the Bush administration's changing cleanup agenda in Northwest speeches and interviews.
Some Washington Republicans, including current gubernatorial and congressional candidates, warn that I-297 might buckle under legal challenges. They say the initiative could ultimately backfire by encouraging other states -- such as Nevada and New Mexico -- to not accept Hanford's trash in the future.
"If other states follow Washington in banning the shipment of waste into their states, then we'll have won the battle but lost the war," says U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash, whose district includes Hanford.
Oregon has always had an awkward relationship with Hanford.
Officials worry about it, complain about it and assess its risks, yet have little control over the once supersecret site that now looks like a sci-fi industrial ghost town on the banks of the Columbia.
Decades of shoddy disposal practices at the defunct plutonium manufacturing complex left Hanford with a goulash of deadly long-lived wastes that were dumped into the earth or into leaky tanks.
The result is a challenging and expensive cleanup project further complicated by evidence that millions of gallons of contaminated groundwater beneath the site are seeping toward the Columbia River.
While both Washington and Oregon wrestle with Hanford's environmental wreckage, only Washington benefits economically from a cleanup project that provides about 10,000 jobs.
And only Washington has some legal control over it.
When the Hanford cleanup agreement was struck in 1989 with the federal government, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology were the only agencies granted authority to help set and enforce cleanup standards.
Left out of the tri-party agreement, Oregon has stood on the sidelines with little leverage other than its monitoring role by its seven-person nuclear-safety office, its participation on the citizen-led Hanford Advisory Board and the influence of its politicians.
Oregon lawmakers have tried repeatedly to get the state a seat at the policy-making table, even if only as a nonvoting participant. It hasn't worked yet. As Grainey, of the Oregon Energy Department puts it, "Basically all we can do is make requests" -- or sue.
"I would argue that it presents as great if not a greater threat to Oregon than it does to Washington," Grainey says, noting potential downriver consequences. "We have more people at risk."
Gov. Ted Kulongoski has not taken sides on I-297, but deputy chief of staff Stephen Schneider says the governor is "very much concerned" about the health of the Columbia River and trucking more waste to Hanford.
"I think the bottom line for this is the imperative need to clean up Hanford to protect the river," Schneider says.
Popularity of initiative
Initiative 297 will pass in a landslide this November if recent polls by Don McDonough, a Seattle pollster, prove prescient.
McDonough says he has never seen stronger numbers for a citizen initiative at this time in the election cycle, with about 70 percent of surveyed voters saying they support I-297.
Past Hanford votes in Washington also suggest the initiative should pass handily. In 1980, voters approved, by a 3-1 ratio, an initiative designed to stop Hanford from becoming the nation's repository for spent fuel from nuclear power plants.
In 1986, Washington voters again handily approved a legislative referral to challenge the Energy Department's possible selection of Hanford to permanently store high-level nuclear waste.
The following year, Oregon overwhelmingly passed a similar initiative.
A similar one-two punch may be in the works again. There is already talk among Columbia River activists of pushing an initiative similar to I-297 in Oregon next year.
"The next step is once we have an initiative pass in Washington state, we get a petition to the state of Oregon that has very similar language," says Greg deBruler, director of Columbia Riverkeeper. "We'd love to have an Oregon initiative."
Jim Lynch: 360-867-9503; firstname.lastname@example.org
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