The Trump administration’s environmental policies are the ultimate screw-you moment for the youngest Americans as well as for generations unborn. Following on the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent easing of rules on coal, the recent news of a proposal to reclassify waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is a jaw dropper. It is also a threat to our region.
The proposal by the U.S. Department of Energy would lower the status of some high-level radioactive waste in several places around the nation.
The Associated Press reported this includes Hanford — the most contaminated nuclear site in the country. Reclassifying the material to low-level could save the agency billions of dollars and decades of work by essentially leaving the material in the ground, critics told AP.
Hanford is the Pacific Northwest’s largest environmental challenge. Its mountain of nuclear waste was born in the secrecy and exigencies of World War II. Once that veil was lifted and Northwest states understood the implications of radioactive waste in the ground and water adjacent to the Columbia River, Oregon and Washington lawmakers pressed for federal responsibility and a seat at the table. Prominent among our advocates were Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield and Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire. That 20-year-old agreement set a 30-year timetable for cleaning up Hanford’s toxins. In view of the daunting complexity of the work and unforeseen problems, this timeline is now expected to continue well into the mid-21st century.
Perhaps it is simply typical of President Trump’s shallow understanding of longstanding agreements of all sorts, but the notion that the federal government could unilaterally redefine the situation at Hanford is both laughable and contemptible. The momentum at Hanford has been moving in the other direction. Washington and Oregon would not surrender their hard won roles in the oversight of Hanford cleanup. Federal courts would certainly back Washington state in defending its contract with the U.S. Department of Energy and the EPA.
This editorial page over decades has decried the pace of clean-up at Hanford. It is essential that all of us — certainly including we who live downriver from Hanford — pay attention to what’s going on. Washington’s U.S. senators — Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell — and Oregon’s — Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley — must leave no doubt that this Trump proposal is indefensible and merits a swift burial.
“No one disputes the difficulty of retrieving and treating high-level waste from Hanford’s aging storage tanks,” Wyden wrote to the DOE. “However, lowering the bar for level of protection of future generations and the environment by changing the definition of what has always been considered high-level waste requiring permanent disposal is a significant change.”
“Burial” was a policy theme for far too long at Hanford, and continues in some senses today. Underground storage tanks which kept toxic sludge out of sight, if not out of mind, have been overly prone to leaks into the ground water and surrounding air. More recently, entire trainloads of diverse poisonous waste from the bomb-building era have been causing problems in tunnels where they were secreted away. In a suspiciously impromptu decision, these nightmarish tunnels are being pumped full of grout. Nearby residents express doubts about whether this stopgap answer will come back to haunt us.
“Burial” also comes to mind in the context of longstanding national failures in how we internalize the human, environmental and monetary costs of war. For too long, Hanford as a facility was treated with much the same lackadaisical attitude too many of our leaders display toward veterans — burying their suffering and needs in an underfunded and sometimes poorly run bureaucracy.
Like the Veterans Administration, Hanford will benefit from continuing close oversight. The cleanup certainly must be financially accountable. But first and foremost, it must achieve its aims of making certain its surroundings and the wider Columbia River region are kept safe for generations to come. The expediencies of war are no excuse for potentially deadly shortcuts in confronting the aftermath of those decisions.
These commitments cannot and must not be hamstrung by political expediency — by this or any future presidential administration.