An Expensive, Long-term Challenge
The Tri-Party Agreement, signed in 1992, is a comprehensive cleanup and compliance agreement. The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, the State of Washington Department of Ecology, and the Department of Energy are members of this agreement. John Price, the Tri-Party Agreement Section Manager for the Washington Department of Ecology Nuclear Waste Program, gives an overview of the history of the Tri-Party Agreement and its role in Hanford’s cleanup.
Narrator: The Tri-Party Agreement is a comprehensive cleanup and compliance agreement for Hanford signed by the U.S. Department of Energy, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the State of Washington Department of Ecology. John Price, the Tri-Party Agreement Section Manager for the Washington Department of Ecology, details what is in the agreement and why it is important.
John Price: The Tri-Party Agreement is actually, I like to think of it as really three different agreements. It’s a Superfund, which is the federal cleanup law. It’s a Superfund federal facility agreement. There’s a federal executive order that said, “Federal facilities have to negotiate federal facility agreements with EPA.”
It’s also a consent order with the state, because the state administers hazardous waste laws. In 1992, importantly, Congress passed a law—which is really important—that most people don’t pay attention to, the Federal Facility Compliance Act of 1992. Congress said that it was okay for the Department of Energy and other federal facilities to store radioactive mixed-waste longer than a year, as long as they were in compliance with a consent order.
That’s one of the really important purposes of the Tri-Party Agreement is to be a consent order between the state and Department of Energy for management of waste. Those are two agreements: a federal facility agreement and a consent order.
Finally, the TPA is what I call a get-along agreement, because DOE, Ecology, and EPA have overlapping authorities and responsibilities. We could be in conflict with each other all the time if we didn’t have a get-along agreement that says, “Here’s how we’re going to do our work, and we’ll agree to do things in a certain way, even though we may both have authority or responsibility over something. We’ve got some rules that we don’t get in each other’s way.”
Many challenges have plagued the cleanup of Hanford over the years, including funding, politics, and lack of public interest. Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, John Price, manager at Washington State Ecology, and Keith Klein, former DOE manager, talk about the challenges of cleaning up Hanford.
Narrator: Over the years, the project to clean up Hanford Site has faced numerous roadblocks. Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, Keith Klein, former DOE manager, and John Price, manager at Washington State Ecology, discuss some of the dynamics that make managing Hanford’s cleanup very complex and difficult.
Tom Carpenter: Hanford cleanup is really expensive. It’s projected to be very
expensive and take a long time. Our Congressional staffers remind me of that all the time. They’re worried about Congress getting tired of funding this. We have a Senator, Patty Murray, who is very good at getting money for the Hanford cleanup. We have a Congress that is paying attention, but what happens when she retires? People worry about that kind of thing. Where is the will in the nation to assure that the funds will be there in the future? I think that’s really the primary concern.
Keith Klein: There is lots of money involved, and whenever there’s lots of money, there’s just lots of issues and other things that come into play. The department does these activities, these sites, through contracts, big contracts, multibillion-dollar contracts with big incentives for getting things done, or there are fees to be paid and big penalties if you don’t do it well.
This can result in a lot of pressures, good and bad. How the contracts are designed can have a huge bearing on how work is done or not done. Obviously, the concerns and needs of the regulators needs to be kept in mind constantly, their needs to come in compliance. We don’t have an open checkbook. The government is constantly needing to manage its resources, to prioritize.
John Price: Locally, I think it works really well. The regulators and DOE have a really good working relationship. Really the overwhelming impact on the Hanford cleanup is the federal appropriation, because that really keeps the local DOE from carrying out the milestones in the Tri-Party Agreement according to schedule. There’s not a really good answer to that.
It’s kind of a classic constitutional dilemma, because Ecology can go to a federal court or a state board and get them to order DOE to do some work. But a court can’t order the Congress to appropriate the money to do the work. It’s really kind of a dilemma.
Keith Klein: I’d say that there is clearly a lack of uniform perspective on the risks of the various facilities, materials, conditions. Depending on your background, education, experience, etc., you come at this from different perspectives.
There was a lot of reconciliation that needed to be done between the promises established under this Tri-Party Agreement, these commitments, and reality. There are a lot of parties involved. Therein comes one of, in my mind, the biggest challenges of dealing with nuclear waste at a place like Hanford. It comes down to communications and alignment.
Narrator: According to the Tri-City Herald on January 9, 2019, a new DOE estimate of the cost of the remaining environmental cleanup at Hanford was $242 billion, an increase of $82 billion. Hanford is a very complex and expensive long-term challenge indeed.
What does the future of Hanford hold? Archeologist Thomas Marceau discusses his hopes for its future.
Narrator: Archaeologist Thomas Marceau shares his hopes for the future of Hanford, including allowing Native Americans to play a greater role in taking care of the land.
Thomas Marceau: Tribal societies, Tribal people, are very patient. They will sit and wait for as long as it takes, because they know they’re not going anyplace else. They were created here. They are obligated to take care of this area. They have no desire to leave this area. They will outwait us. In fact, one of the things you’ll hear in meetings with these guys is just that: “Ah, well, don’t worry. 100 years from now, you’re all gone. We’re still here.” They have a long-range view of how things can play out.
It’s us, the Europeans, that kind of need to get out of the way a little bit, as it were, and allow the Tribal people to start taking care of the land again, the way that they know they need to do. So that we are simultaneously encouraging cultural traditions, and being good stewards of the land. I can’t see a better long-term stewardship program than one that actively involves the Tribes in the land management issues out here in terms of making this area reusable again, making it productive again. I hope that happens. I hope I’m here to see it when it does.
It’s interesting, because I’ve worked here for twenty-two years on the Site, trying to think about the environmental legacy of the place. I don’t know. I just hope it gets to the point where it’s clean enough to be used again. Whatever they need to do. We keep on kind of slipping in and out of the news, in terms of funding or no funding or whatnot. I think when you start looking at how many billions of dollars it will take to clean this site up, you can understand that. But I hope we don’t give up and say, “Oh, we spent enough money. We’re not going to get it all,” or “There’s no sense in continuing.” There’s too much at stake out here in terms of the land itself.
I also hope that the land stays as a natural preserve. I am not a supporter of developing the Hanford Reach. I would love to see it stay in its pristine condition. It is a game preserve. I would like to see it open to the public in terms of interpretation and visitation.
I’d like to see people get to appreciate the land for what it is. It’s survived a long time. It will out-survive us. Even if we don’t clean it up, it will still out-survive us. So, who knows?