EPA, Energy Department reach agreement over Hanford violations

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) - The U.S. Department of Energy reached an agreement with its regulators Tuesday to settle a $1.14 million fine for cleanup failures at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site.

The fine was the largest ever levied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Northwest office over work at the Hanford nuclear reservation in south-central Washington. The penalty concerned operations at a landfill for contaminated soils and other hazardous and radioactive wastes from cleanup operations.

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Today, workers labor to rid the 586-square-mile site of waste left from decades of plutonium production for the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal.

The problems came to light in January, when a subcontractor at the site discovered that an employee had been recording data for compaction testing at the landfill, when in fact no testing had been done since June 2005.

Landfill workers also failed to perform weekly inspections of the landfill's system to collect and remove liquids, the EPA said. The system is intended to reduce the risk of leaks.

"With this enforcement action we sent DOE a message that they and their contractors have taken to heart," Elin Miller, EPA's regional administrator in Seattle, said in a statement. "They have made changes to ensure that these types of violations don't occur again."

Under the agreement, the Energy Department and its contractor, Washington Closure Hanford, will still pay a $285,000 fine.

They also will buy two emergency response boats, costing $253,000, for the Benton County sheriff's office. The boats will respond to any hazardous materials spills in the Columbia River, which forms the north and east boundaries of the Hanford site.

Another requirement is to build a greenhouse and nursery to grow native plants and seeds for habitat rehabilitation, at a cost of $602,000.

That project will be implemented with help from Washington State University and area American Indian tribes.

No federal cleanup dollars will be spent on either the projects or the fine, Energy Department spokeswoman Colleen French said.

"The fine was a wake-up call," French said. "This facility is critical to our ability to continue full-scale cleanup of Hanford's river corridor and we agree with EPA that changes were needed."

Washington Closure has made a number of improvements in operations at the landfill to address EPA concerns and to increase productivity, President Chuck Spencer said in a statement to employees announcing the settlement.

The company bought two new compactors and upgraded the liquid collection system, and increased management oversight of the subcontractor operating the landfill.

Todd Nelson, Washington Closure spokesman, said costs of the projects and fine likely will be passed on to the subcontractors responsible for managing the landfill.

The native plant program is particularly relevant given wildfire damage this year at the Hanford site and the neighboring Hanford Reach National Monument. Wildfires scorched at least 92,000 acres in the two areas this summer alone.

The Energy Department already is planting 200,000 pounds of seed for native grasses on 9,500 acres of burned area this fall, at a cost of $3.1 million. More replanting will occur next year.

Erosion is always a concern after a fire, and an even greater worry is the spread of noxious weeds and exotic plants, such as Russian thistle, which burn more readily than native plants. Rehabilitation experts also have raised concerns about shortages of native seed in recent months.