YAKIMA – A judge has denied the federal government’s request to dismiss part of a lawsuit that seeks an assessment of natural resource damages caused by decades of plutonium production at the Hanford nuclear reservation.
The Yakama Nation sued the U.S. Department of Energy in 2002, seeking restoration of soil, water, plant and animal life that may have been damaged by radioactive waste and other hazardous releases at the south-central Washington site. The Nez Perce Tribe later joined the lawsuit, as did Washington and Oregon.
The Energy Department, which manages Hanford cleanup, argued it was too soon to determine if there were injuries to the environment or whether reparations should be paid.
In a ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Lonny R. Suko, of Yakima, did not order the federal government to pay for the assessment. However, Suko denied the federal government’s request to dismiss the part of the lawsuit that would hold it liable for any costs associated with the assessment.
Lavina Washines, Yakama Nation chairwoman, said in a statement that recovery of those costs is absolutely essential in a case this size.
“These injury studies are so expensive that a government must know at the onset it can recover them from the polluter,” she said. “Now we will be able to do the studies necessary to understand the full extent of the harm done by Hanford.”
A representative for the U.S. Department of Justice, which represents the Energy Department, could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
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 nuclear site, with cleanup costs expected to top $50 billion.
Injury assessments typically cost millions of dollars and often serve as a precursor to paying monetary damages.
The Energy Department had repeatedly refused to conduct one, but abruptly reversed course in April and agreed to begin a review.
The agency said then it would begin assessing the damages in collaboration with two other federal agencies, the states and the Indian tribes.
However, the Yakama Nation and the state continued to pursue the case in court. The tribe has said an assessment could cost as much as $100 million.
“The state is pleased with this decision, because it means we can go forward and look at the actual liability issue. It wouldn’t have been great if we had been knocked out on this issue,” said Nels Johnson, an assistant attorney general for Washington.
Johnson also said the parties likely will coordinate assessment efforts.
“The federal government certainly isn’t going to pay for duplication. Anywhere you have multiple trustees, there has to be care taken that there isn’t redundancy,” he said.