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Hanford leaks not posing food contamination threat to Washington, Oregon

Federal and state government officials do not anticipate groundwater supplies from the Columbia River will be adversely affected by the seepage of radioactive waste from storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in south-central Washington.

"While it's disappointing to learn of additional leaking tanks at the Hanford site, I think it's important to remind everyone that this area is far removed from any agriculture production and poses no risk for any contamination to our farms or the food they produce," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told The Produce News Feb. 26.HanfordLeakThe 618-10 burial ground at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation  on Aug. 26, 2010. Workers dug up a number of drums containing radioactive materials such as depleted uranium chips in oil, a cask with unknown contents and other debris. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy) "We have a strong 21st century food-safety system in place and work hard to ensure our globally recognized products are safe and of the highest quality. There is no pathway for the contamination to travel from the site to any farmland."

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation was used to produce plutonium for the bomb that brought an end to World War II. Activity later continued during the Cold War and ceased in 1987.

"Weapons production processes left solid and liquid wastes that posed a risk to the local environment including the Columbia River," according to the Hanford website. "In 1989, the U.S. Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency and Washington State Department of Ecology entered into a legally binding accord, the Tri-Party Agreement, to clean up the Hanford Site."

In mid-February, Gov. Inslee was told by the Department of Energy that one single-shell tank had been found to be leaking. On Feb. 22, Gov. Inslee met with U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu in Washington, DC, and was told that six of the 149 single-shell tanks at the reservation were leaking.

"Secretary Chu has a long-standing personal commitment to the clean-up of Hanford," Gov. Inslee said. "He has assured me he will do all he can to address the issue of the leaking tanks. He also assured me there will be immediate additional monitoring of the single-wall tanks."

"The tanks are underground and at least five miles from the Columbia River," Hector Castro, communications director for the Washington State Department of Agriculture, told The Produce News, adding that the tanks are buried 200 feet above the groundwater table. "It would take years for contaminants to reach the groundwater."

DOE Spokesperson Lindsey Geisler issued the following statement regarding the leaking tanks: "The Department of Energy is committed to the safe cleanup of the Hanford site. The cumulative rate of seepage from the six tanks is currently estimated to be less than three gallons a day. To put that amount in perspective, roughly 1 million gallons of material previously leaked into the soil from the single-shell tanks at Hanford over a period of decades. To address those tanks that were leaking, by 2005 the department removed all the drainable liquid possible out of the single-shell tanks, into double-shell tanks. We have not observed any discernible change in the contamination levels in the monitoring wells, but continue to monitor it very closely."

Chris Voigt, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, told The Produce News Feb. 26 that "99.9 percent of agriculture in Washington won't be affected by this."

Potatoes are produced in Pasco, WA, which is located approximately 40 miles from Hanford. "We are concerned about public perception for our customers," said Mr. Voigt. "It's not causing an immediate threat. All the water used in the Pasco area [for potato production] comes from 200 miles north."

The Columbia River courses the state border between Washington and Oregon. Bruce Pokarney, director of communications for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said the Beaver State does not anticipate an impact to agriculture resulting from the leaking tanks.

Concern about the aging storage tanks at Hanford continues to be a subject of ongoing discussion.

"[Secretary Chu] and I agree that the state of Washington and the federal government must have a thorough and candid discussion about the need for additional storage tanks," Gov. Inslee stated. "Frankly, the state Department of Ecology is not convinced that current storage is adequate to meet legal and regulatory requirements."

The Department of Energy is looking at several strategies to block the flow of contaminants to the Columbia River. The department also plans to transform contaminated water stored in underground tanks into a stable glass product through vitrification.

"Once the vitrification process has taken place, the molten, glass-like material is poured into cylinders where it will cool and become solid," the Hanford website states. "Ultimately, cylinders containing the most hazardous vitrified waste will be taken to a national repository for permanent burial. The cylinders with less hazardous waste are candidates for disposal in an integrated disposal facility."

The process to establish an integrated disposal facility at Hanford will include publication of an environmental impact statement and record of final decision.