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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Task force may not understand urgency at Hanford

Vapors leaking from tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are sickening workers, in one case so severely part of one lung had to be removed. If the U.S. Department of Energy is concerned, it doesn’t show much.

Almost 10 months ago, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent the department a notice of endangerment that, among other things, enumerated the increasing number of illnesses identified by a federally funded Hanford Tank Vapor Assessment Report. The report included recommended solutions, among them better detection and sampling equipment, as well as improved communication.

No response.

So Monday, Ferguson filed suit against the department and its contractor, which in February offered an implementation program Ferguson says is inadequate.

The federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act allows legal action where there is “imminent and substantial endangerment to the public’s health or the environment.”

Based on the assessment report, that should be a threshold easily met.

Unfortunately, the new lawsuit is just one of a series of legal actions taken by Washington since the state, DOE and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency negotiated a cleanup agreement in 1992, as well as a 2010 consent decree between the state and the DOE. Those deals have given Washington leverage other states do not have to hasten, as much as possible, removing and treating waste that dates to World War II.

Congress could take that leverage away.

A new report examining the progress and expense of the cleanup efforts says consent decrees force DOE to focus on activities that have little to do with adopting efficient, cost-effective solutions to waste disposal. Managers complain they are stymied by inflexible rules.

Priorities may vary from state to state.

The report’s solution is an interagency task force with the power to set priorities, allocate resources, integrate policies and resolve disputes. No more consent decrees that undermine national policymaking, and end in litigation that produces inconsistent court rulings.

And, maybe, more rational spending; a praiseworthy objective if not at the expense of public safety. The federal government spends about $2 billion a year at Hanford, but the ongoing health issues among Hanford workers suggest safety continues to suffer.

Compromising the quality of the Columbia River – a possibility if the pace of progress does not accelerate – could jeopardize public health in ways that would cost ever so much more to remediate.

Hanford is by far the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States, so much so that the science to permanently neutralize some of the worst material has been elusive. But a task force in Washington, D.C., may not understand the urgency of finding solutions as well as Washington leaders do.

The “Report of the Omnibus Risk Review Committee” is plenty risky for Washington.