Most of us have a vague suspicion about “top secret” facilities. Just what is going on behind those gates? Why won’t they let us know what they’re doing? The 583 square mile Hanford nuclear site in south central Washington state is one of those facilities. They made atom bombs there. For more than half a century, they have been cleaning up the radioactive waste. Or have they?

Photo via W. Douglas Smith

Photo via W. Douglas Smith

In 1994, I led a team of 31 Washington state and U.S. EPA inspectors. The Department of Energy (DoE), Washington State and the EPA, had just entered into a Tri-Party compliance agreement to ensure that the site would be in compliance with state and federal environmental regulations. The DoE had 650 permanent staff on site. Their responsibility was to oversee operations and manage private contractors. My team spent the next 6 weeks combing every inch of the facility. Our job was to document compliance or non-compliance, with every regulation covered by Washington State and/or the U.S. EPA.

At the time, there were 21,000 people employed by nearly 2,000 contractors at Hanford. There was a prime contractor, but I’ll keep names out of this.

With environmental compliance, nothing is ever as it seems. Environmental enforcement can be political, biased and conditional. Here is where lessons begin.

During our orientation we were shown a map of the facility. On the map were things called “BRTs.” These were situated along the Columbia River near the reactor sites. We were told that the BRTs were “top secret” and only those with clearance would be allowed to approach them. Three of us had “top secret” clearance, and we showed these––to their surprise. It turned out that B-R-T stood for “Big Round Thing.” These were large lipstick-shaped structures about 30 feet high and covered with about a foot of friable (finger crushable) asbestos. The contractor knew these would be of concern to the inspection team, so they used the guise of “top secret,” and BRT was a ruse.

When we visited the first BRT, we saw that the disposal contractor could simply climb a ladder and chisel the asbestos off and let it fall. On the ground were several plastic children’s inflatable swimming pools to catch chunks of asbestos. The dust simply drifted off in the wind. The contractor immediately climbed down and disappeared in his truck. There were other BRTs that were under similar demolition.

All asbestos demolition is to be totally enclosed, filtered and with full protective equipment for the worker. No friable asbestos may be released to the environment. We photographed the operation and took several samples.

The Tri-Party Agreement

The Tri-Party agreement required a site-wide safety plan to be coordinated with three nearby towns along the Columbia River. The Department of Energy (DoE) identified over 150 hazardous or extremely hazardous sites on Hanford. Each of these sites was required to have a unique safety plan, emergency contact number and outlined procedures in case of emergency. We chose 11 sites at random to investigate.

Not one had an operational plan. If there was an emergency response manual, it was outdated and phone numbers didn’t work.

The Incident of the Lethal Tank

At another site, we found a stainless steel tank stored in the basement of a large office and laboratory building on-site. The tank was only visible by remote TV monitor. We were told that it contained extremely radioactive material that would be lethal over a wide area if released. The TV monitor was on a small desk with what looked like a red/green traffic light on the adjacent wall. I asked that the monitor be turned on. Slowly, a faint greenish image began to appear. To the left side and behind the tank was a convex car hubcap mounted on a stand. I was informed that it was possible to zoom in and view the rear of the tank by looking at the hubcap. We zoomed, but the reflected image of the tank got smaller and distorted. There was a log that recorded the daily tank inspections.

I asked to speak with the person who kept the log. The tank monitor said they could not inspect the tank with such poor lighting. The monitor told me they had reported that one of the two single-bulb lights in the vault had been out for months. The log showed their repeated reports of inability to inspect the tank because of poor lighting.

I asked the monitor what the red/green traffic light was for. The monitor told me it was part of the alarm system in case there was a leak. I asked if the tank was monitored for a radioactive, gas or liquid leak? The monitor said they didn’t know what kind of leak to look for.

Let’s imagine the light turned red. What would you do? The monitor pulled out a drawer and took out the emergency response manual. Clearly marked on the cover it said that the manual was no longer valid. We called several of the emergency numbers in the manual and were unable to find anyone familiar with the safety plan.

Just as we were preparing to leave, the monitor went black. The single remaining bulb had burned out.

Legacy Waste

We found many drums and containers of unknown material scattered around the Hanford reservation. The DoD called this “legacy waste.” When a contractor finished their project, they would simply walk away and leave their waste as a “legacy.” What’s in the containers? No one knew. In all, we found several hundred full or partially full “legacy waste” drums.

Hanford dumping ground. (Photo via W. Douglas Smith)

Hanford dumping ground. (Photo via W. Douglas Smith)

The “Tumbleweed” Incident

There are several state highways crossing the Hanford site. A simple wire fence was supposed to keep people and animals out. The fence was better at catching tumble weeds. Most of the fencing looked like miles and miles of tumble weed hedge. I asked if there was concern about a range fire. The Prime Contractor representative said that the fence was regularly inspected and there was a reciprocity agreement with the local town fire departments.

We visited three nearby towns. All three fire department chiefs explained that they would never risk the safety of their town by taking expensive equipment onto Hanford.

Much of the radioactive waste was buried around the facility in shallow trenches about 10 feet deep. Sage brush and tumbleweeds have a tap root about 15 feet deep. Rodents feed on the plants. That was why they found trace radiation in small rodents all over that part of the state.

Note: Soon after this investigation, the Hanford facility suffered a range fire that covered 22,000 acres. The fire department reported that it was probably started by a passing vehicle and sagebrush collected along miles of fencing.

A Case of Unexpected Consequences

In all, there were potential violations in every category inspected and thoroughly documented. The following is a short list of problems witnessed:

  • Nepotism
  • Fraud and abuse
  • Abandoned hazardous waste
  • Toxic waste releases
  • Unidentified and unmonitored waste
  • Chemically reactive waste stored in radioactive facilities
  • A totally unusable site-wide safety plan
  • Misrepresentation to a federal agent and a state inspector
  • Lost or misplaced PCBs
  • Misrepresentation of a laboratory procedure to avoid regulation
  • Turning a continuous radiation monitor off to avoid detection by the state air agency
  • Failure to track waste accurately
  • Unidentified PCB waste in storage
  • Numerous other apparent violations of state and federal regulations

Now comes the lesson. The EPA did not pursue a single violation, nor was there a followup briefing of the media.

As team leader, I was requested to write a “summary of causes and effects” of the issues for the EPA Region 10 Administrator. That summary was marked as “confidential, eyes only.” A review of that document was held and attended by myself, the Deputy Administrator and all media program managers in EPA Region 10.

Subsequent requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by citizens living near or working on the Hanford reservation have been made. EPA has not produced that document.

In the more than 20 years since that inspection, there have been other inspections. Few inspections have had “top secret” clearance to investigate with the rigor and depth we did. Washington state Governor Inslee continues to express grave concern about operations at Hanford. Much of the same obfuscation, waste, fraud and abuse, continues to be reported.

In 2015, the DoE reported that they expect the site to be finally cleaned up by 2075, 132 years after making the first atom bomb.

Hanford cartoon plume

Why These Things Happen

Hanford and the surrounding towns depend upon the high wages and income from a perpetual cleanup. Meanwhile dozens of outdated and corroded tanks continue to leak. Groundwater monitors record radiation migrating toward the Columbia.

Scientists work for highly profitable contractors. They try new methods of in-situ-vitrification (turn waste into lumps of glass for long term storage). The problem is that there are no places that will accept Hanford waste for 50,000 years.

Some get away with things by deceit. Some get away through obfuscation. Some become part of the economy and too big to prosecute. Hanford was all three, and EPA played the political wind sock and looked the other way.

If a contractor did violate the law, guess who pays the fine? You do. The DoE pays for everything at Hanford. Nice gig, huh?

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