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Editorial: Hanford resolution a hostage of politics

Death, taxes, and more time to clean up Hanford.

Those are the certainties of life in Washington, but the state is pushing back against the latest federal request for permission to miss another deadline on radioactive remediation.

Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced the state will not agree to a third extension for resolving a disagreement over the cleanup timetable. Under a 2010 consent decree, the state and the U.S. Department of Energy agreed to enter into dispute resolution. But as part of that decree, the feds are required to finish building and begin operating a plant to treat radioactive waste. The feds also were ordered to remove waste from single-shell tanks. Some of those tanks have been leaking, and the resulting underground plume keeps creeping closer to the Columbia River.

But not long after the ink dried, the feds began telling the state they would miss project deadlines. That led to the formal dispute resolution process, which began in March. Despite two deadline extensions, state and federal officials have failed to agree on a compromise. The feds asked for a third extension, but Inslee and Ferguson correctly surmised that enough is enough.

So the feds have 30 days to talk the state out of asking a district court to intervene and enforce the decree. Don’t hold your breath.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation was constructed secretly in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project. Plutonium produced by the site was used in Fat Man, the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, two years later. The rapid pace of that project stands in contrast to the lumbering cleanup effort.

In 1989, the state Department of Ecology, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed the Tri-Party Agreement, which called for the clean up to be completed by 2019. Fat chance. So in 2010, the court-ordered consent decree set 2040 as the date for all radioactive waste to be retrieved and 2047 as the date it must be treated.

At the time, officials from all parties called this a realistic timeline and emphasized that it was enforceable. But then, as always, the feds began announcing that they would miss many interim deadlines.

It’s unfortunate the state must continually turn to the courts. The prospect of state taxpayers taking on federal ones is frustrating, but apparently that’s the only way cleanup promises can be kept.

The job of removing and securing 56 million gallons of toxic waste from underground barrels is a complex one. Nobody denies that.

But politics keeps blocking a solution, and there’s more than one culprit. The avoidable budget sequestration enforced by Congress is partly to blame for the latest delays. Plus, Hanford needs $3.6 billion by 2016, but the Obama administration has requested $1.5 billion less than that.

It’s always something, so the state had little choice but to warn it will ask the court to use what leverage it has to get a job done that already has been way too long in the doing.

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