Riverkeeper and Allies Demand Prompt Action on a Generations-Long Problem

Blog post by Dan Serres, Riverkeeper’s Conservation Director—

Riverkeeper's Dan Serres & U.S. Department of Energy's Matt McCormick agree with Rosie. How about you?

April 18, 2014. It's not every day that you see Hanford workers, health professionals, Columbia River advocates, and state agencies calling on the U.S. Department of Energy (Energy) to redouble its efforts to clean up the Hanford nuclear site. This week, I was inspired by the public testimony offered in Portland and Hood River, where over 100 Oregonians and Washingtonians joined together to ask tough questions about how to improve the clean-up at the Hanford site.

Before each meeting, a few dozen participants stood in a circle and shared our thoughts about why Hanford matters to us. Holding banners and standing in the rain, we reinforced the reasons why Hanford cleanup is so important. Our Columbia River is destined to be fishable, drinkable, and swimmable, and Hanford poses a unique and severe threat to all of those goals. I was particularly touched by the thoughts shared by Hanford downwinders, people whose health was compromised by nuclear weapons production.

During the hearing itself, as I listened, there were some clear themes that connected testimony from a wide variety of perspectives. First, and foremost, participants highlighted the importance of safeguarding Hanford's workforce during the complicated, difficult, and dangerous task of maintaining Hanford's tank waste. In recent weeks, 26 workers sought medical attention after becoming ill from inhaling highly dangerous vapors originating from Hanford's underground tanks of nuclear waste. Several workers attended the Hood River hearing and boldly argued for a better approach to worker safety as well a full accounting of the risks to the public from transporting Hanford's waste. Their testimony received applause and support from the Hood River audience.

In Portland, Hanford activists, local physicians, and downwinders urged Energy to proceed more quickly with the construction of new double-shelled tanks. Energy and the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) acknowledged that many tanks have leaked in the past, and at least two are currently failing. Yet, the agencies sharply differ on how quickly one leaking double-shelled tank, AY-102, which holds come of the most hazardous radioactive waste in the world, should be emptied.

In response to audience questions, I appreciated the candid effort put forth by officials from the Ecology and Oregon Department of Energy in helping us understand the different approaches. Not surprisingly, I heard over and over from speakers at the meeting that Energy should heed Ecology's concerns and move quickly to build new double-shelled tanks at Hanford.

Lastly, the agencies, themselves shared some of the challenges that they face in proceeding with the cleanup. Dennis Faulk, Matt McCormick, Jane Hedges, Kevin Smith and two representatives from Oregon's Department of Energy engaged in a back-and-forth with audience members about how to ensure that Hanford can meet its cleanup goals. The agencies continue to struggle with inadequate funding to face some of Hanford's biggest challenges. In particular, I appreciated hearing from audience members who urged agency officials to prioritize a thorough cleanup of the River Corridor and an aggressive funding approach for groundwater remediation.

In coming months, the agencies will be discussing key issues about how much waste will be left behind in soils and groundwater near the Columbia River, and how future uses of the Hanford site could be impacted by those decisions.

I left feeling very concerned about Hanford's future impact on the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, which contains the best mainstem Chinook salmon spawning habitat in the entire Columbia River system. I also left both meetings feeling unconvinced that workers in the tank farms are receiving the protection they need to do their work safely.

Yet, I was deeply encouraged by the efforts of Theresa Labriola, Riverkeeper's Hanford Organizer, and our partner organizations—Hanford Challenge, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Heart of America Northwest—as well as all of the attendees who took the time to speak their minds.

Our combined vigilance is the biggest asset we have to protect the Columbia River and its incredible salmon habitat.