"In Washington state, we have been patient. In Washington state, we have been reasonable. And today, our patience has simply run out," Gov. Chris Gregoire said Tuesday. "They were steadfast on putting us in a legal position that is not good for the people of this community."
Gregoire said she was willing to accept deadlines proposed by the Energy Department, which manages the cleanup. But the Justice Department refused to make those deadlines enforceable in court, she said, leaving the state no choice but to sue in U.S. District Court.
The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation's most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup costs expected to top $60 billion.
In a statement, the Energy Department said it remains committed to safe Hanford cleanup, has made significant progress and is disappointed by the litigation.
"We have long maintained that litigation is costly and distractive, and erodes the confidence that Congress, stakeholders and others have in our collective ability to complete this important job," the statement said.
Hanford cleanup is governed under the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement, a pact signed by the state Department of Ecology, the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency that lays out priorities and deadlines.
Washington has agreed to more than 400 changes to that pact, including many deadline delays, state Attorney General Rob McKenna said. If more delays are necessary, they should come with a schedule that is enforceable by a federal court. If it were to fail to meet such deadlines, the Energy Department could be found in contempt.
The Energy Department has agreed to similar consent decrees on environmental cleanup projects, both in Washington and in other states, he said. But the Justice Department refused in this case.
"It's not that we haven't been flexible," McKenna said. But that "left us with a lack of confidence that we could trust them to meet the newest milestones when they haven't met the last milestones."
Central to Hanford cleanup is 53 million gallons of radioactive brew stewing in 177 underground tanks. Some of those tanks are known to have leaked into the aquifer, threatening the nearby Columbia River, and 144 tanks remain to be emptied of liquid waste and sludge.
Once retrieved, the waste is to be transported to a vitrification plant on site to be converted into glasslike logs for permanent disposal underground. Long considered the cornerstone of Hanford cleanup, the plant lags eight years behind schedule and is billions of dollars over budget.
The plant's current price tag is $12.2 billion, and the operating date is 2019, far beyond the mandated 2011.
Under the current Tri-Party Agreement, the entire Hanford site was to be cleaned up by 2035.
In recent years, Hanford has received about $2 billion each year toward cleanup - one-third of the federal government's entire budget for nuclear cleanup nationally.
A ballooning federal deficit has raised concerns that money won't be as readily available. The litigation also could prompt Congress to steer money elsewhere.
Gregoire said she didn't decide to file suit easily, traveling to Washington, D.C., twice in the past year to meet with federal officials and try to hammer out an agreement.
Barack Obama, who has stayed out of the fray as president-elect, has expressed a willingness to negotiate with the state once he assumes office to resolve the situation, she said.
"I'm very hopeful that we can make that happen," Gregoire said. "It's not a decision we came to lightly, but we have no other options in our opinion at this point."