EPA report critical of state oversight at Hanford

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) A new report released Tuesday faults Washington state for lax oversight at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, saying the state employs too few inspectors and gives advance notice of inspections to the federal agency charged with managing the cleanup.

The report by the Environmental Protection Agency sharply criticizes the state at a time when the U.S. Department of Energy, which manages the cleanup at south-central Washington's Hanford Nuclear Reservation, has been the target of intense criticism of its own amid delays, rising costs and complaints of mismanagement.

The report was released by the watchdog group Hanford Challenge.

The report resulted from a 2011 EPA audit conducted every four years of the state's enforcement of clean air, water and hazardous waste laws.

EPA sent the draft report to the Ecology Department on April 30 and received the state's responses on June 14, EPA spokesman Mark MacIntyre said Tuesday.

The draft report pans Washington officials for giving the Energy Department prior, written notice of inspection plans at Hanford and for limiting each inspection to those areas.

In one case, the report notes, state inspectors returned to their office, wrote a notice to the Energy Department and later returned to the Hanford area where they had earlier witnessed a potential violation.

"This notification significantly inhibits Ecology's ability to complete inspections which cover the entire facility and to make accurate and timely compliance determinations," the report said.

John Price of Ecology's Nuclear Waste Program said the state has a policy in place allowing for unannounced inspections. That one instance resulted from a federal Hanford employee turning away an inspector, he said, and the state immediately raised the issue with the Energy Department.

In its written response to the report, the state noted plans to double the number of nuclear waste inspectors from two to four.

MacIntyre said EPA continues to review the state's comments and will issue a final report later this year.

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation's most contaminated site, with cleanup expected to last decades.

The state and federal government signed a legally binding cleanup agreement in 1989, but it has been amended numerous times. Earlier this month, the Energy Department notified officials in Washington and Oregon that it is at risk of missing two more cleanup deadlines there.

Tom Carpenter, executive director of Seattle-based Hanford Challenge, raised concerns that Washington state officials are too close to their counterparts at the Energy Department in south-central Washington.

"They feel like they're in this together, and they're going too easy on DOE when there are violations that must be enforced," he said. "This report says, 'You don't have discretion not to conduct inspections. You don't have the discretion not to enforce violations.'"

Carpenter also noted that Hanford has been the subject of just one state enforcement action in the past two years, while the state has filed more than 1,000 enforcement actions against other polluters in the state over the same period.

"This wouldn't be a problem if Hanford was in great shape, but we know that it's not," he said.

Price countered that the state inspects thousands of different companies, resulting in a high number of enforcement actions, and said the state instead chooses to be selective with its Hanford inspections.

"We're trying to be very strategic about what we inspect, because these issues are complex and these inspections take time," he said.

Price also said the state has shown its willingness to seek administrative orders or to go to court to force compliance, he said.

Central to cleaning up Hanford is the removal of millions of gallons of toxic, radioactive waste from underground tanks. State and federal officials recently announced that six tanks there are leaking, raising concerns about delays to emptying them.

The Energy Department also announced delays on construction of a massive plant to treat that waste a project that is already years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

The U.S. government spends some $2 billion each year on the Hanford cleanup. That is roughly one-third of its entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally.

So far, the cleanup effort has cost $36 billion, and it is estimated it will cost $115 billion more.