Jul 24, 3:28 PM EDT

Federal judge wants deadlines in cleanup at Hanford


RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) -- Specific requirements and deadlines are needed to hold the U.S. Department of Energy accountable in the cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a federal judge told state and federal officials on Thursday.

During a court hearing, U.S. District Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson said she will appoint a panel of experts to help her with the technical and scientific issues in more than 6,000 pages of documents, according to the Tri-City Herald ( http://bit.ly/1RYznZM ). She gave the energy department and the state 21 days to each appoint a representative to the panel.

The state of Washington has submitted a list of deadlines for emptying radioactive waste from certain leak-prone waste tanks and getting a plant built to treat the waste. Federal officials wanted to delay deadlines until technical issues were resolved.

The judge said she'll reject the DOE's proposed plan for the court-ordered consent decree and lean closer to the state's proposal.

Malouf Peterson made only brief remarks Thursday after listening to arguments from DOE and the states of Washington and Oregon. She said she will issue a written opinion.

Her ruling will focus on whether the proposed amendments would resolve problems caused by DOE's inability to meet deadlines agreed to in 2010 and the issue of holding DOE accountable rather than focusing on specific deadlines.

Washington Assistant Attorney General Andrew Fitz said the state's job as a Hanford regulator is to hold DOE accountable, but the history of trying to get tank waste treated for disposal is one of moving deadlines and delays.

The 2010 consent decree resolved a lawsuit filed by the state in 2008 when it became apparent that DOE could not meet deadlines. The consent decree set new deadlines to be enforced by the court. But now most of the remaining deadlines in the consent decree are at serious risk of being missed by DOE.

"Effectively, we are back where we were when we filed the lawsuit," Fitz said.

The DOE's plan is to regularly update the state on its progress, but nothing ensures that progress will be made or requires that technical issues be resolved, Fitz said.

Kenneth Amaditz, a lead attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, countered that "technical issues cannot be predictably resolved by certain dates."

Resolution can be lengthy and expensive, Amaditz said.

The judge's choice is to establish deadlines based on guesses or wait until there is enough information to make them meaningful, he said. It's impossible to know now if extensive work may be needed, such as changing out tanks in the plant, redoing ventilation systems or pulling piping out of concrete to resolve technical issues, he said.

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