NUCLEAR WASTE:

EPA audit faults Wash. state's Hanford oversight

A U.S. EPA draft report criticizes Washington state for lax oversight of the Hanford nuclear site, citing too few inspections and ignored violations.

The nearly 200-page draft was released by watchdog group Hanford Challenge as the Department of Energy deals with a host of obstacles to completing a waste treatment plant at Hanford, a $12 billion project that is over budget and years behind schedule.

EPA's audit is broad; it covers Washington state's compliance with clean air, clean water and hazardous waste laws. But it includes several criticisms of how the state's Department of Ecology has overseen the Hanford site.

For example, the audit points to an agreement between the Department of Energy and the state that the Department of Ecology will "provide prior written notice of inspection plans," including what units and areas will be inspected.

"This has created at least one instance when Ecology inspectors had to return to their office, write a notice to Energy, and later return to the area where they had earlier observed a potential violation in order to complete the compliance evaluation," EPA auditors wrote. "This notification significantly inhibits Ecology's ability to complete inspections which cover the entire facility and to make accurate and timely compliance determinations."

In an official response, the state said inspectors are free to pursue violations that are not in the scope of a notified inspection. It dismissed the instance in the EPA audit as a "onetime interpretation by a Dept. of Energy employee, which has been corrected."

The EPA report also noted that the state had two inspectors for nuclear waste with responsibility for four facilities including Hanford. The state has plans to increase that to four inspectors.

Hanford Challenge Executive Director Tom Carpenter applauded the increase in inspectors but voiced concerns of too much collusion between regulators and the nuclear site's contractors.

"We have been highly concerned about regulatory capture at Hanford for some time, and we believe that the state needs more of an arm's-length relationship from the polluter at Hanford," he said. "Over the past two years, there has been only one enforcement action at Hanford. In the same period of time, Ecology has filed over a thousand such enforcement actions against other polluters in the state. This wouldn't be a problem if Hanford was in great shape, but we know that it's not."

Hanford is the nation's largest and most expensive nuclear waste site. About 56 million gallons of radioactive waste sits in underground tanks, and DOE hopes to treat it in a first-of-its-kind plant that would trap it in glass for burial.

Last year, DOE announced that it would push back the completion date of the plant to investigate the viability of vessels slated to hold highly radioactive material (Greenwire, June 27, 2012).

The plant was originally slated for completion in 2019. Its delay will affect plans to open the low-activity waste facility before the rest of the plant, further jeopardizing the timeline.

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