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DOE agrees to new work at radioactively contaminated site in Eastern WA after $1M fine

The Department of Energy has committed to two new environmental restoration projects at the Hanford nuclear site rather than pay a fine that at one time was more than $1 million.

The Washington state Department of Ecology had issued the penalty because it said DOE was not giving it direct access to important information and data about environmental contamination at the reservation.

As a regulator at the Hanford site, it said it should be allowed access to electronic documents that many DOE employees and its contractor employees can routinely see and should have a way to search the information in DOE’s main records repository, the Integrated Document Management System.

A search would help it determine what documents have information it needs, the Department of Ecology said.

Instead, the Department of Ecology said when it issued the penalty in early 2020 that it sometimes had to wait weeks or months for paper documents it determines it needs.

That was a change from earlier years when information was provided promptly, it said.

An employee of the Washington state Department of Ecology, a Hanford site regulator, takes a close-up look inside the Tank-Side Cesium Removal System’s process enclosure in September 2021.
An employee of the Washington state Department of Ecology, a Hanford site regulator, takes a close-up look inside the Tank-Side Cesium Removal System’s process enclosure in September 2021.

DOE said in a statement Thursday that it has consistently provided information requested by the Department of Ecology needed for the state to issue permits for cleanup work.

Earlier it said that granting Ecology “unfettered access to any database it independently identities would upset the balance” of the Tri-Party Agreement.

Hanford access negotiated

The settlement agreement does not allow direct access to Hanford electronic databases, but DOE will set up a separate repository for Ecology with documents that the state agency needs for inspections to make sure environmental cleanup and monitoring meets legal requirements outlined in the Tri-Party Agreement.

The Tri-Party Agreement reached in 1989 by DOE and its regulators — Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency — governs cleanup of the Hanford site.

The 580-square-mile site in Eastern Washington adjacent to Richland is contaminated with radioactive and hazardous chemical waste from the past production of nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program during World War II and the Cold War.

Hanford was used to produce plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program during World War II and the Cold War. Environmental cleanup is underway now.
Hanford was used to produce plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program during World War II and the Cold War. Environmental cleanup is underway now.

Ecology officials have said they need quick access to information such as piping diagrams, tank inspection reports, problem evaluation reports and safety procedures.

Among the projects that Ecology regulates are Hanford’s aging underground tanks storing 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste. Tanks built as early as WWII are prone to leaking waste into the ground beneath them.

“We’re pleased to reach agreement with Energy on a solution that gets us what we need,” said Laura Watson, director of the Department of Ecology.

“Our job is to protect the people and environment in Washington,” she said. “In order to do our job, we need access to basic documents the U.S. Department of Energy is required to provide.”

DOE said the agreement settles the dispute about access to DOE electronic data “in a mutually acceptable outcome.”

The settlement comes more than four years after the Department of Energy was accused by the state of missing a Tri-Party Agreement deadline related to policies for sharing Hanford information. The agreement has regularly been updated through the decades with new deadlines and requirements negotiated and added to address issues.

DOE also was out of compliance with two other sections of the agreement, allowing the state to fine it $30,000 for every week it was out of compliance.

The state issued a fine of just over $1 million at the start of 2020, and DOE appealed to the Washington state Pollution Control Hearings Board.

DOE penalty reduced

The board found in the Department of Ecology’s favor on all counts, said David Bowen, manager of Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program, but reduced the fine to $540,000 in May 2022.

As DOE appealed that decision, the state and federal agencies entered negotiations and the case was paused.

DOE must set up the new repository of Tri-Party Agreement information by the end of 2024, under the requirements of the new agreement.

Part of the center of the 580-square-mile Hanford site is shown in June 2022 with the vitrification plant in the foreground.
Part of the center of the 580-square-mile Hanford site is shown in June 2022 with the vitrification plant in the foreground.

But some documents and data are being added immediately to the repository, Bowen said.

That’s better than continuing litigation with no access, the state decided.

Routine electronic access to databases and reports became an issue for DOE due to medical privacy laws and the increasing threat of identity theft, which were not addressed in the Tri-Party Agreement.

The Department of Ecology found it was waiting to have documents cleared after an initial request, and then if the documents were needed again a few years later it had to wait on the same clearance process again.

Once information has been added to the new repository, it will not have to be cleared again, Bowen said.

In negotiations, state and federal officials have worked to better define what information is relevant to Tri-Party Agreement requirements, he said.

To settle the $540,000 fine, DOE has agreed to a project that will control weeds and conserve habitat across the Hanford site and it also will restore some of the Gable Mountain area at Hanford.

Gable Mountain holds an important place in the culture of area tribes. Tribes and bands, including the Wanapum, Yakamas, Nez Perce and Umatillas, have wanted Gable Mountain restored to its condition before settlers and tribes were made to leave as the federal government took over land for Hanford during WWII.

The two projects are projects that DOE was not previously required to do, Bowen said.

Without the agreement the fine paid by DOE would go into a general Washington state account.