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9th Circuit sides with state on Hanford waste

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the state of Washington does have authority over certain radioactive waste mixed with hazardous chemicals at Hanford.

It upheld in its Tuesday ruling a 2005 summary judgment ruling in Eastern Washington federal District Court that the state had authority to require DOE to dig up and process waste temporarily buried at Hanford after 1970 until the nation has a national repository opened in New Mexico.

At issue is mixed transuranic waste, typically trash such as protective clothing and laboratory debris contaminated with plutonium and also hazardous chemicals such as solvents or heavy metals. It’s left from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

“The federal court has upheld the state’s authority to protect its people and its resources from the extremely dangerous wastes that were buried decades ago at Hanford,” Jay Manning, director of the Washington state Department of Ecology, said in a statement.

The case was filed after Ecology issued an order in 2003 requiring DOE to remove and process enough waste to fill about 75,000 55-gallon drums. The waste is buried in drums and boxes.

In arguments before the federal court, state and federal attorneys agreed that Congress had given DOE the authority to dispose of mixed transuranic waste without treating it.

That’s an exception to federal law requiring treatment of hazardous waste before it is disposed of by burial. But the exemption does not cover storage of mixed transuranic waste, the state argued.

Mixed transuranic waste may be safe to dispose of in an untreated form at the national repository in New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, but that does not mean it is safe to store untreated for years at sites like Hanford, the state said.

The federal government argued that the exemption for mixed transuranic waste covered not just disposal, but also storage.

The 9th Circuit ruled that the exemption applied only to waste already at the New Mexico repository.

“We are very pleased that this ruling confirms the enforceability of an important element of the Hanford cleanup schedule,” Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said in a statement.

DOE has been working to dig up the waste and has removed enough waste to fill more than 45,000 drums.

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