State fines Hanford $1 million. Feds withheld critical safety information, it says

By Annette Cary

Tri-City Herald

Washington state issued a fine of just over $1 million to the Department of Energy on Monday, accusing it of restricting access to important information about the Hanford nuclear reservation.

DOE has appealed the state’s determination that it has not met legal requirements for sharing information with the state.

DOE previously said federal law limits the information that can be made available immediately, even to a Hanford regulator like the Washington state Department of Ecology.

The department relies on information from DOE and it contractors to provide oversight and ensure DOE meets standards set by the state to protect the environment.

It writes the permits that DOE is required to have to operate Hanford and conducts inspections of projects and areas with much of the site’s waste.

“Without access to this data, we can’t effectively protect the land, air and water for residents in Eastern Washington and surrounding communities,” said Polly Zehm, Ecology acting director.

DOE is spending about $2.5 billion a year on environmental cleanup of the 580-square-mile nuclear reservation. The site is one of the most radioactively and contaminated places in the world after producing plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program through the Cold War.

Zehm said the state has attempted to negotiate with DOE for years over access to information, with restrictions only increasing.

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.

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 Ecology.

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

Specific information that Ecology officials said they need quick access to includes piping diagrams, tank inspection reports, problem evaluation reports and safety procedures.

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.

DOE did not immediately comment on Monday, but it released a statement in December saying that “granting Ecology unfettered access to any database it independently identities would upset the balance of the TPA (Tri-Party Agreement) as a whole.”

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, according to the Department of Ecology.

The state already had extended the deadline four times.

Ecology is allowed to fine DOE $15,000 for the first week of the missed deadline and then $30,000 for each week after that.

A month ago Ecology gave DOE until Jan. 6 to provide electronic access to DOE’s main database for 16 categories of data about Hanford.

DOE responded by filing an appeal withe the Washington state Pollution Control Hearings Board Friday.

Unless DOE prevails, the $1.065 million fine would be paid out of the current $2.6 billion in the federal budget for Hanford, according to the state.

Department of Ecology officials said they would aim to use the money collected from the fine to support Eastern Washington communities.

DOE said in a document sent earlier to Ecology officials that information access changes wanted by the state “would grant Ecology not just a peek into DOE’s playbook, but ongoing access to DOE’s playbook.”

DOE said last month 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 its December statement.

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.

“An agreement toward data access should have happened years ago,” Zehm said. “We reached agreement in principle with Energy several times, but in the end, Energy chose to simply declare that it had met its obligations and walked away from the table.”

Ecology pointed out that DOE has said it is concerned that regulatory delays cause it to miss important cleanup deadlines.

“This deflects from the very real issue that Energy is withholding access to data,” said Alex Smith, the Department of Ecology, Nuclear Waste Program manager. “Data that would speed up regulatory decisions, while ensuring human health and the environment, are protected.”