Washington on Tuesday sued the federal government to halt the shipment of radioactive waste to the Hanford nuclear reservation until the Energy Department commits to dealing with 78,000 barrels of waste already stored in trenches there.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Spokane. The state seeks a permanent injunction against new shipments to the south-central Washington site until enforceable benchmarks for the cleanup are in place.
Jessie Roberson, the Energy Department's assistant secretary for environmental management, said the federal agency has clear authority over the shipments. That isn't going to change, she said in a teleconference from Washington, D.C.
"The issue isn't whether we're going to get the work done. It's whether we need the state to force us to do the work," she said. "I believe we have demonstrated we know what our obligations are and we're committed to carrying them out."
Gov. Gary Locke and Atty. Gen. Christine Gregoire, announcing the lawsuit in a joint news conference, were exasperated with what they described as an eleventh-hour change of heart by the Energy Department.
"Frankly, we are hopping mad," Gregoire said.
In a sternly worded letter to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, the governor said the state "cannot and will not" continue taking the wastes without assurances of a cleanup.
"This is a nuclear waste dump, pure and simple," Locke wrote. "It is indefensible that the Department of Energy wants to send more nuclear waste to Hanford without providing us with enforceable assurances that it will deal with this waste."
The state and federal governments have been negotiating for months. In December, the Energy Department informally agreed to provide assurances that the waste currently stored at Hanford would be systematically dug up, repackaged and eventually shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, Locke said.
The transuranic waste is essentially radioactive trash -- often contaminated with plutonium -- and typically includes such items as protective clothing, tools and pipes.
The waste is a byproduct of nuclear weapons production.
The material is stored in 55-gallon drums, many of them buried in unlined trenches.
Locke and Gregoire said the government inexplicably walked away from the tentative cleanup agreement, leaving the state with only flimsy promises.
"The Department of Energy's blatant disregard of our previous agreement is indefensible," the governor said. "On behalf of the people of Washington, we will do whatever it takes to ensure that a timeline is developed for Hanford, a cleanup plan is put in place and the Department of Energy follows through on it."
He added: "Our state's environmental health is at stake.... New promises won't make things right."
Gregoire said the state has accepted about 40 barrels of waste from Ohio and California since December and a shipment of 10 barrels from Ohio was expected to arrive today.
The state seeks an injunction to bar a shipment expected March 19 and all subsequent shipments until differences are ironed out.