by Lunell Haught, President
Two issues that bring Leagues across the Pacific Northwest together are the Columbia River Treaty and the Hanford Nuclear Site cleanup. The League of Women Voters of Washington (LWVWA) influences both with expertise from members who have been involved with these projects for decades. They exemplify our commitment to democracy, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and care for all.
The Columbia River Treaty Modernization Negotiations
The LWVWA has co-signed a letter to comment on the Columbia River Treaty Modernization Negotiations with the Leagues of Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. These Leagues adopted a position on the Columbia River Basin in 1979 that states:
In order to meet the present and future water needs within the Columbia River Basin, the League of Women Voters believes comprehensive planning on a basin-wide basis for conservation, development, and management of the water is essential to the optimum utilization of our water resources.
There are three key recommendations in our letter:
- The addition of “ecosystem-based function” as a third Treaty purpose. Expert representatives able to address ecosystem function must be added to Treaty negotiation and governance structures.
- The need to consult with Native American tribes within the region. This is key since the Columbia River flows through their ancestral land, and they have treaty rights with the U.S. government that must be honored.
- The strengthening of flood control measures. As climate change affects water availability throughout the basin, reasonable flood control measures to protect humans, property, and local animal species should be strengthened in any Treaty update.
These are examples of the League’s persistent, relentless, and behind-the-scenes work to make our systems work for everyone. Raelene Gold, a Lobby Team Issue Chair (Rivers and Forests), has been an excellent resource in the League’s work on the Columbia River.
The Hanford Nuclear Site Cleanup
Regarding the cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Site, the recent agreement between the State of Washington and the federal government was disappointing to many because it prolongs the Hanford cleanup. In a time when much government money is being spent, it is dispiriting to have Hanford still underfunded.
The Hanford Advisory Board, organized with the commitment and support of the LWVWA, has been working on the Hanford cleanup for decades. Hanford Advisory Board Chair Jan Catrell has followed other members of the League in guiding the board through many difficult decisions. In an email about the current status, she explains:
Hanford cleanup is governed by the Tri-Party Agreement that was negotiated in the 1990's under the leadership of Christine Gregoire, who was Director of the Washington State Department of Ecology prior to being elected as governor. The Department of Ecology (Ecology), along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE), are signatory to the Tri-Party Agreement.
The Tri-Party Agreement functions by identifying areas to regulate portions of the cleanup: the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE)is responsible for the nuclear waste; the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees the DOE to ensure the regulations pertaining to Superfund sites are met; and Ecology has responsibility for the mixed waste which is held in the tanks.
DOE is focused on building a vitrification plant, an enormous and expensive project that will take tank waste, treat it to remove cesium and strontium, and then send it to the vitrification plant to turn it into a stable form of glass logs that will be safe for long term storage.
The Tri-Party agencies are aware that various tanks are leaking into the soil. Currently, contaminated soils are being treated by two "pump and treat" facilities on the Hanford site. Pump and treat utilizes injection wells that are placed where contaminated plumes are known to exist. Liquid is forced into the wells to capture contaminants in solution and send the liquids to the two facilities that extract contaminants, both chemical and radiological, using an osmotic process. The decontaminated liquid is sent back to the injection wells and the contaminants are isolated for long-term storage and eventual disposal.
The two Pump and Treat facilities are the crown jewels of the Hanford site. They are very effective at isolating wastes of concern.
DOE is focused on getting the vitrification plant online as soon as possible to begin treating the tank waste; prospects are that glass logs will be produced on a limited basis in the next five years. All resources are being focused on getting to this place and the funding required is enormous.
The Washington State Congressional delegation is fully in support of this path. Both Senators Murray and Cantwell have been successful in increasing the funding appropriation, particularly in the last five years. There is hope on the horizon that vitrification will go online in the foreseeable future where tank waste will be addressed in a “concrete” way that will result in environmental safety improvements that have been in our sights for decades.
No one wants leaky tanks. There is some comfort in knowing that tank waste in the soil will be captured by the injection wells and sent for processing. There is an overriding expectation that contaminants will be captured before they reach the Columbia River, and additional injection wells can be placed to mitigate identified hazards in this regard. Compared to the hazards associated with millions of gallons of waste being held in aging tanks, the amount of leakage is minimal. The regulations state clearly that tank leaks must be addressed immediately, but the reality is that funds for cleanup are more effectively spent getting the vitrification plan into production than on chasing liquids seeping from tanks that can be addressed by injection wells (eventually).
It appears that we are putting the limited appropriated funding to get the plant up and running to effectively stabilize tank waste for storage and disposal. Any monies diverted to other purposes, however worthy, will only delay the progress forward to a more permanent solution. Ecology regulates the mixed waste in the tanks, so their preference would be to address the releases into the environment. However, the agreement with Ecology will put into place regulations and procedures that will mitigate the hazards in other ways.
The League can be effective in lobbying for additional funding for Hanford cleanup. The cost of this project is so large, and the need is so great, supporting increases in funding for the work in progress is our best environmental defense.
League Members Dedicated to the League's Values
These examples demonstrate how the League's members engage in civic work. Both Raelene and Jan have devoted hours and years to conducting the League’s mission work on these issues. We thank them for their hard work and commitment.