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US nuclear: Hanford water cleanup not working, report says

A multimillion-dollar effort to clean polluted water flowing underground from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation to the Columbia River is largely ineffective, concludes a federal report released yesterday.

And despite the fact that U.S. Energy Department officials know that the effort isn't working well, little is being done to find new approaches to do the job better, states a report from the department's Inspector General Gregory Friedman.

Groundwater is already draining into the Columbia tainted with pollutants at levels that could potentially harm juvenile salmon, cleanup officials said.

The audit from the Energy Department inspector general found that the department has spent more than $85 million over the past eight years to clean up groundwater. The plan is to continue spending $8 million a year on systems that pump the water out of the ground so that toxic chemicals and radioactive contaminants can be removed and the water returned to the ground -- a process known as "pump and treat."

This strategy remains in place, although it's "not effectively remediating Hanford's groundwater," the report says.

Audit recommendations include shutting down ineffective treatments, talking to interested parties about the amount of clean up that should be done, establishing goals and working on new technologies.

A response to the audit was provided by Jessie Roberson, an Energy Department assistant secretary for environmental management until her July 15 resignation. In her June 29 letter, Roberson largely agreed with the suggestions, saying they were consistent with current cleanup plans at the site, and that the agency plans to begin a study of treatment alternatives this fall.

Independent critics are also concerned about plans being considered to leave more radioactive waste buried at the site, increasing the risk of further contamination, though the department says that isn't the case.

Critics also worry that the acknowledgement that the cleanup isn't working will provide an excuse for the department to give up on the project. Officials with other agencies stress that isn't an option.

"Our goal is still to return these waters to drinking water standards as soon as possible," said Dennis Faulk, Hanford groundwater program manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"It's not as easy as throwing up your hands and saying 'I quit,' though I do think they'd like to do that at times," he said.

In May, Washington state officials rejected an Energy Department request to temporarily stop a pump-and-treat system that was deemed insufficient in one part of the reservation. Instead, the state argued that federal officials should propose a new course of action in writing before making changes.

The Energy Department agreed to continue treatment in the interim.

For decades following the creation of Hanford in the 1940s, 450 billion gallons of waste from the production of weapons-grade plutonium was dumped onto the desert soil of the Eastern Washington site. The dangerous waste was flushed into the soil and groundwater.

The pump-and-treat systems are removing some of the contaminants, and work has been done to cap wells and water lines that could add to the pollution and speed its flow toward groundwater, Faulk said.

There are also plans to spend $230 million on surface barriers to slow the spread of the pollution, but this "may be inconsistent" with final cleanup goals that must be agreed upon by a diverse group of interested parties including other government agencies and tribes, the audit said.

"The fact that they can't seem to come up with the technology to clean up the groundwater could lead to future disaster for the Columbia River and people living here," said Tom Carpenter, director of the nuclear oversight program for the Government Accountability Project, or GAP, a watchdog group.

GAP and Robert Alvarez, an adviser to the energy secretary in the Clinton administration, released a study earlier this week by Alvarez that found more radiation than previously planned will be buried at Hanford, which could increase the risk of contaminated groundwater.

A technical consultant to the Energy Department rebutted those claims.

This report includes information from The Associated Press. P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or lisastiffler@seattlepi.com

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