Hanford cleanup continues as Gregoire steps down

Hanford cleanup continues as Gregoire steps down
In this April 3, 2008 file photo, a sign warns of radiation on the Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire takes with her more than two decades of experience fighting to clean up the nation's most contaminated nuclear site when she leaves office next week.

In the mid-1980s, Gregoire was a deputy state attorney general lobbying the U.S. government to disclose whether the Hanford nuclear reservation, created in secrecy in World War II to produce plutonium for the atomic bomb, posed any environmental or health risks.

As director of the state Department of Ecology, she helped negotiate a 1989 agreement requiring the federal government to clean up the site. She then served three terms as state attorney general and two terms as governor, often working to enforce that agreement.

Now preparing to leave elected office, Gregoire has emerged as one of the state's most stalwart proponents for cleaning up the site contaminated with toxic and radioactive waste.

"All the way along, it's been one challenge after another," Gregoire said in a recent interview. "Worker safety, community safety, the safety of the Columbia River — All were paramount in our minds, and we've really struggled to make sure the science behind the cleanup was right and we didn't compromise all those things."

At the height of World War II, the federal government enlisted 50,000 people for a hush-hush project to build the atomic bomb, making a remote stretch of land in south-central Washington the state's fourth-largest city. In just 13 months, they built the B Reactor, a first-of-its-kind facility that produced plutonium for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending the war.

Hanford went on to produce plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal for decades, employing thousands of people and establishing the area as a science and technology center.

But the effects of those efforts remain: Nine nuclear reactors to be shut down and decontaminated, miles of groundwater tainted with radioactive elements, hundreds of burial pits filled with unknown debris.

Central to the cleanup is removing millions of gallons of highly toxic, radioactive stew — enough to fill dozens of Olympic-size swimming pools — from aging, underground tanks. Some of those tanks have leaked, threatening the groundwater and the neighboring Columbia River.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican whose district includes Hanford, credited Gregoire for her efforts to negotiate the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement.

"I've always been one who believes, while this is a federal project, there should be just as many management decisions made at the local level," he said. "The TPA helps that, because it gets the state involved in those agreements. She obviously deserves credit."

Gregoire has garnered criticism at times, from environmental groups critical of the state for not demanding more of the federal government and from some local officials who wanted to include nuclear technologies in Hanford's future economic plans.

Carl Adrian, executive director of an economic development group there, noted that Gregoire failed to try to entice a nuclear fuel processing company to the region.

But he said she worked in lock-step with Washington's congressional delegation to ensure cleanup continued at Hanford.

"Clearly, she is an expert," he said, "and it was an advantage having her in the positions she's had as attorney general and governor."

A quarter of a century later, Gregoire said she never would have envisioned so much of her life in public service would be devoted to cleaning up one of the most polluted sites on Earth. She also said she remains confident the site will be fully remediated, despite technical problems that have slowed cleanup and driven up the price tag.

But she acknowledged she was naive to think the 1989 agreement would resolve problems there, because so much was unknown about Hanford then.

"We knew we didn't know everything, but little did we understand that records were not kept," she said. "We did not really appreciate or understand when we negotiated that agreement the complexity we were going to face."