Commentary: Trump administration can’t walk away from Hanford

The federal government must honor past commitments to fund cleanup of the nuclear reservation.

By the Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board

In these days of whirlwind, vertigo-inducing news cycles, one can be excused for failing to peruse a 13-page policy memo released last week by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget that, on its penultimate page, shows just how little the Trump administration cares about its federal-court-mandated responsibility to clean up waste on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

The memo is a laundry list of reasons why President Trump is threatening to veto a comprehensive congressional spending bill. Amid the litany of bullet points starting with “The Administration strongly objects to …” — covering, among other things, spending to forgive student loans, to prevent teen pregnancy and to fund Americorps — is a paragraph detailing its opposition to the House’s proposed $706 million increase in environmental cleanup of Department of Energy sites, including $487 million for Hanford.

The policy memo’s last sentence on cleanup funding really stings: “The Administration urges the Congress to reallocate these funds to higher national security priorities.”

That pronouncement, coming the same week as President Trump traveled to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, shows a startling lack of history and a shirking of responsibility for a program in south-central Washington that helped the U.S. emerge victorious in World War II. Too, building atomic weapons at Hanford helped bolster the nation’s arsenal during the Cold War.

Now, though, the remnants of the program at Hanford — about 60 percent of the nation’s most potent radioactive waste — that needs to be safely cleaned up and stored has become to this administration a low priority, to be dealt with as cheaply and blithely as possible. Congress’ spending plan for Hanford is not so-called “new” or additional money; it would restore $381 million in cuts the administration is proposing from Hanford’s 2020 fiscal budget.

Granted, other administrations, dating to the Reagan years, have dragged their feet concerning Hanford cleanup, but none so fervently (and on as many fronts) as Trump.

Several days before release of the policy memo, the administration made good on its threat from last winter and reclassified much of the 56 million gallons of waste stored in underground tanks from “high level” to “low level” — a designation change that goes against the Department of Energy’s own assessments but which lets the agency move it to low-level disposal facilities in Utah or, alternatively, leave it in the ground, where some tanks are known to be leaking.

Washington Gov. Jan Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson denounced the federal government’s attempt to overrule state (and court) rulings and regulations. The two wrote in a joint statement that the federal government is “showing disdain and disregard for state authority” with the reclassification of the waste and the foot-dragging on cleanup. Inslee and Ferguson added: “The (Trump) administration seeks to cut out state input and move towards disposal options of their choosing, including those already deemed to be unsafe by their own assessments and in violation of the existing legally binding agreement.”

Essentially, the Trump administration is treating 80,000 metric tons of nuclear waste as a political football to be kicked around, while it does what is politically expedient regardless of proven environmental and public-safety concerns.

Those following this federal-vs.-state saga should not be surprised by the administration’s antipathy when it comes to dealing with the mess at Hanford.

In the past year, the Department of Energy has (a) filed suit challenging a Washington state law making it easier for sickened Hanford workers to receive compensation benefits — potentially perpetuating public health risks — a claim that a U.S. District Court judge rejected last Thursday; (b) restricted the access of an independent safety board, which the federal government had agreed to form, to information about progress at the Hanford cleanup — potentially putting public health at risk; (c) canceled the next phase of a pilot project that would hasten cleanup by sending some of the waste to a commercial facility for it to be turned into a concrete-like form.

Washington state Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon has countered by sending the administration a “letter of concern” that the Department of Energy is not on schedule to meet legal deadlines for cleanup. Bellon told the Tri-City Herald that the state’s option is to take DOE back to court, but that threat probably wouldn’t persuade the Trump administration to hasten removal or change policy.

Certainly, Hanford officials bear some responsibility for delays that have stretched into years. Inspector general reports details misuse of some funds (including unearned overtime paid to workers) and lax oversight of contractors.

But none of that should matter. Ultimately, it’s the federal government’s responsibility to clean up the toxic stew below ground at Hanford. Rather than looking for a quick (and cheap) fix, the Trump administration needs to act decisively and do what’s right. While the half-life of plutonium may be “forever,” cleanup should not take that long.

The above editorial appeared June 14 in the Yakima Herald-Republic.

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