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Sunday, April 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Feds fight $1 million Hanford fine. It increases $30,000 every week the fight continues

Signs are posted near the entrance to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in 2017 in Richland, Wash. (Manuel Valdes / AP)
Signs are posted near the entrance to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in 2017 in Richland, Wash. (Manuel Valdes / AP)
By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

A fine of more than $1 million issued by the state of Washington to the Department of Energy is excessive and unlawful, DOE said in an appeal of the penalty filed this week.

It is the federal government’s second appeal filed with the Washington state Pollution Control Hearings Board on the issue.

DOE appealed the Washington state Department of Ecology decision that it had not met legal requirements for sharing information with the state about the Hanford Site. Three days later on Jan. 6, Ecology officials issued the fine, which DOE also is appealing now.

DOE said in its new appeal that Ecology has indicated it likely will argue that DOE has no right to challenge the fine.

“We have received a copy of the appeal,” Alex Smith, Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program manager, said Thursday. “We’re not surprised that Energy is asking the Pollution Control Hearings Board to review both the basis and the amount of the penalty.”

Ecology will respond to specifics of the appeal through the legal hearings process, she said.

Ecology, a Hanford regulator, has accused DOE of restricting access to important information about the site that it needs to effectively protect the land, air and water for residents in Eastern Washington and surrounding communities.

DOE says that federal law limits the information that can be made available immediately, even to one of its regulators.

Data access allows the state to verify that Hanford workers have treated water and air emissions to safe levels before discharging them to the environment, according to the state.

When Ecology’s inspectors find problems and require DOE to correct them, inspectors cannot verify issues are resolved without access to data, according to the agency.

DOE is spending about $2.5 billion a year on environmental cleanup of the 580-square-mile nuclear reservation near Richland.

The site is one of the most radioactively contaminated places in the world after producing plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program through the Cold War.

Hanford fine continues to grow

The fine of $1.065 million issued Jan. 6 continues to accrue in the amount of $30,000 a week while the issue of information access is unresolved, according to the DOE appeal. Interest also may accrue.

Payment of the fine would “divert several million dollars away from DOE’s core mission at Hanford, which is cleanup of the site,” the DOE appeal said.

“The amount far exceeds the amount of any civil or stipulated penalties assessed by Ecology over the last 30 years at Hanford,” the appeal said.

Ecology has said that it would aim to use the money collected from the fine to support Eastern Washington communities.

DOE also argues in its appeal that Ecology does not have the legal authority to issue the fine under laws that allow it some regulatory authority of Hanford.

Because the access to information that Ecology wants are not required by law, they are not subject to fines, the appeal said.

However, the state has indicated it believes it has authority to issue the fine under the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement.

DOE also said that it was not given the chance to challenge the fine during a required dispute resolution period and there is no opportunity to keep the fine from increasing during the appeal process.

Ecology said when the fine was issued that it had attempted to negotiate with DOE for years over access to information, with restrictions only increasing.

State: Information is essential

The state needs data that details the extent of contamination in soil and groundwater, how hazardous waste is managed, the status of underground storage tanks and progress on environmental cleanup, according to Ecology.

Among the Hanford projects that Ecology regulates are Hanford’s aging underground tanks storing 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste. The oldest tanks were built in World War II.

Ecology officials said they should to be able to pull up information electronically from a DOE database that is also used by DOE cleanup contractors when they are at a Hanford project, instead of receiving paper copies weeks or months later.

In some cases Ecology officials are not sure what documents to ask for because they are not provided the electronic tools to search for what information is available.

Federal laws cover Hanford information

The fine is the result of DOE failing to meet a March 31 deadline in the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement related to policies for sharing Hanford information, the Department of Ecology said in January.

The state already had extended the deadline four times.

Ecology said it is allowed under the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement to fine DOE $15,000 for the first week of the missed deadline and then $30,000 for each week after that.

DOE said before the fine was issued that the Tri-Party Agreement requires any information access changes to be negotiated and approved by all three parties, including DOE, Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We will continue to provide appropriate access to information in a way that allows us to continue to adhere to federal laws and requirements for protecting certain types of information in our data systems,” DOE said in a statement before the fine was issued.

DOE has federal legal requirements that prohibit it from releasing information without checking to make sure it has no personally identifiable information, information that is proprietary to businesses, security sensitive information or procurement sensitive information.

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