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YAKIMA, Wash. -- The Energy Department has not made
significant progress in treating contaminated groundwater at the
Hanford nuclear reservation, a federal audit has concluded.
The department has estimated that 80 square miles of Hanford's
groundwater were contaminated at levels exceeding state and federal
drinking water standards during decades of plutonium production for
the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal.
The study released by the Energy Department's inspector general
reviewed the effectiveness of the agency's methods for treating the
water. Those so-called pump-and-treat systems call for workers to
pump contaminated groundwater, run it through filters to remove
radioactive contaminants and re-inject the water into the ground.
The pump-and-treat systems have been "largely ineffective," the
audit concluded. In addition, it found that plans to install surface
barriers to block contaminated groundwater from spreading may be
inappropriate until final plans for groundwater at the site have been
The department has spent more than $85 million over the past eight
years and will continue to spend about $8 million annually to operate
pump-and-treat systems that are not effectively cleaning the water,
the audit said.
More than $230 million are scheduled to be spent on the surface
In a June 29 response to a draft of the audit, the Energy
Department agreed with most of the findings. The recommendations were
consistent with current cleanup plans at the site, and the agency
plans to begin a study of treatment alternatives this fall, Jessie
Roberson said then. Roberson, who was assistant energy secretary for
environmental management, has since resigned.
Roberson also said that discussions with stakeholders, such as the
state and Indian tribes, are necessary to determine final plans for
groundwater at the site.
In May, Washington state officials rejected an Energy Department
request to temporarily discontinue a pump-and-treat system that was
deemed insufficient in one part of the reservation. Instead, the
state argued that federal officials should propose a new course of
action in writing before making changes.
The department agreed to continue pumping and treating groundwater
in the interim.
The plumes of contamination move very slowly, said Bruce Ford,
director of the groundwater remediation project for Fluor Hanford,
the contractor handling some Hanford cleanup. Research into
alternatives to treating the plumes has been ongoing for years, he
said, but contractors will have enough information to make
recommendations within the next year.
For 40 years, the 586-square-mile reservation in south-central
Washington made plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons, beginning
with the top-secret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb.
Today, it is the nation's most contaminated nuclear site. Cleanup
costs are expected to total $50 billion to $60 billion, with the work
to be finished by 2035.
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