Court Upholds Washington's Right to Prohibit Mixed Waste

* A federal court ruled recently that the state of Washington has the right to prohibit shipments of mixed waste to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The court cited federal hazardous waste laws that allow states to regulate disposal of hazardous waste.

Mixed waste contains both hazardous and radioactive constituents. While states have authority to oversee hazardous waste disposal, they do not have authority to regulate radioactive waste. The Department of Energy (DOE) oversees such waste at its sites nationwide. However, because mixed waste contains both hazardous and radioactive components, Washington can oversee its disposal at Hanford.

The ruling upholds a condition of state Initiative 297, which was supported by an overwhelming majority of WashingtonÕs voters in November. The initiative states that DOE must clean up all existing contamination at Hanford before any new mixed waste can be shipped there. Following the initiative's addition to the state ballot, Gerry Pollet, of Heart of America Northwest, said, "Initiative 297 will change state law to reflect the principle we all learned in kindergarten: you have to clean up your mess before adding to it. Deadly radioactive and toxic wastes are already leaking from Hanford's landfills and High-Level Nuclear Waste tanks towards the Columbia River. We must cleanup, not add more waste."

As part of the DOE nuclear weapons complex, Hanford became one of the most contaminated places in the Western Hemisphere as a result of plutonium production. There are 177 underground tanks at Hanford that contain highly radioactive waste, 68 of which may be leaking to the nearby Columbia River. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper said of the proposal, "Tank waste at Hanford threatens to pollute the Columbia River.... [DOE] needs to clean up nuclear waste fully, not evade public accountability."

Despite these concerns, DOE proposed to ship additional radioactive waste to Hanford for storage indefinitely. DOE proposed storing as many as 92,775 truckloads or 12 million cubic feet of additional waste at Hanford. The Spokane Spokesman newspaper said of the proposal, "[DOE] hatched a plan to transport radioactive waste from around the country and dump it into what might as well be called the Great Columbia River Landfill."

The initiative also states that DOE can no longer dispose of mixed waste in unlined pits and trenches on the Hanford site. Such disposal practices have already led to a 200-square mile plume of contaminated groundwater beneath the site. The initiative requires greater monitoring and cleanup of existing unlined trenches.

The recent federal ruling also has implications for waste disposal and clean up at New Mexico's DOE facilities, as it confirms that the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has the authority to regulate mixed waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where such waste is also buried in unlined trenches.

Under this law, NMED was authorized to release its Corrective Action Order, which became the Order on Consent. The order requires LANL to review and develop clean up strategies at the site. Because much of the contamination at LANL contains mixed hazardous and radioactive constituents, NMED is authorized to require cleanup.

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