September 19, 2007 in City

Reservoir could spread radiation

By The Spokesman-Review

A huge reservoir proposed to irrigate farms in the parched Yakima Valley could also saturate radioactive soils below the nearby Hanford Nuclear Reservation and push the contamination into the Columbia River, according to a report issued Tuesday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The findings have prompted deep concerns within the Washington Department of Ecology – not to mention environmental groups – but state and federal agencies plan to move forward with additional studies on the Black Rock Reservoir proposal.

The reservoir in Black Rock Valley – about five miles west of the country’s most contaminated nuclear site – would cover about 14 square miles and be 600 feet in places. Water to fill the reservoir would be pumped from behind Columbia River’s Priest Rapids Dam.

Although much of the 1.6 million acre-feet of water stored in the proposed reservoir would end up sprayed on orchards, vineyards and fields, between 1 percent and 3 percent would seep into the underlying fractured basalt, according to the Bureau of Reclamation analysis. That water would saturate the surrounding area and flow east, eventually raising the groundwater levels by 20 to 40 feet in Hanford’s 200 East and 200 West areas, where millions of gallons of radioactive waste are stored in underground tanks. Some of these tanks have leaked in the past.

The increased groundwater could saturate and dissolve radioactive contaminants sitting in dry soil, potentially sending radiation into the Columbia River, said Jane Hedges, nuclear waste program manager for the Washington Department of Ecology. “Based on the hypothetical modeling that was done, we have a high level of concern.”

But the state has an obligation to consider all potential sites for water storage, said Derek Sandison, manager of Ecology’s Central Washington region. Black Rock is one of six being studied, but it has the highest potential for water storage. An environmental impact statement on Black Rock will be issued early next year.

“No other alternative is going to have an impact to Hanford. No other impact is going to give as much water,” Sandison said.

About $17 million has already been spent studying proposed reservoirs for Black Rock and the Wymer Dam site, which is about 15 miles north of Yakima, according to Gerald Kelso, the Bureau of Reclamation’s manager of the Upper Columbia region. Cost estimates to build Black Rock range from $5 billion to $6 billion, not including possible barriers that could be employed to slow the seepage of water.

“Regardless of what we do, we can’t guarantee that we intercept all the water that may be trying to get around the dam,” Kelso said.

The state and federal government should quit “wasting” money on studying Black Rock, said Rachael Paschal Osborn, director of the Spokane-based Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

“All of this would simply be disastrous,” Osborn said. “Are we really going to take that chance?”

Given the radioactive risks, Osborn suspects the dam proposal will be scuttled, but she worries the findings from the report will only push government officials to take a harder look at other reservoir proposals, including one for Hawk Creek, just west of Spokane.

“This is going to take one off the list. Others will rise to the top,” Osborn said, adding that she would like to see a greater emphasis placed on conserving the state’s limited water resources.

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