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Monday, October 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Hanford cleanup effort shows Gregoire's persistent side

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Gubernatorial candidate Christine Gregoire is known as a scrapper, never shying away from taking to court those who victimize the public — whether energy market manipulators, pyramid schemers or identity thieves.

While Gregoire might have been the state's top lawyer for 12 years, she does have a reputation for collaboration even with her foes. Yes, she is known nationwide as the lead attorney general on the landmark multi-state tobacco lawsuit yielding about $4.5 billion for Washington. How about that? New revenue without a tax increase.

But a decision she made years ago not to litigate can be linked to another major Gregoire achievement: a landmark agreement with the federal government to clean up the Hanford nuclear reservation in south-central Washington.

Now before your eyes glaze over at the mention of the most daunting environmental cleanup effort in the nation, consider that the two candidates vying to succeed Gregoire as attorney general both cite continuing her Hanford vigilance as a top priority.

Gregoire's role has been monumental. Fifteen years ago, Gregoire was the state's ecology director trying to find a way to ensure the Department of Energy would clean up the nation's nuclear defense waste that accumulated at Hanford over 45 years.

Her federal sparring partner was then-Hanford manager Mike Lawrence. As the Energy Department was shutting down the last of Hanford's defense reactors, he remembers a critical meeting in 1988 with Gregoire and then-Gov. Booth Gardner. The state was considering a "friendly lawsuit" to give cleanup negotiations with the feds the force of the courts. Lawrence warned the federal government would likely consider such a lawsuit anything but friendly, fight it and turn off money for cleanup.

Gregoire conceded his point and began working with him on an agreement between the state, the Energy Department and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The Tri-Party Agreement, signed May 15, 1989, was a landmark and became a model for agreements at other nuclear sites.

"If she had pushed the lawsuit, we would have lost years on the cleanup," Lawrence says. "There were good days and bad days (in the negotiations), but she always listened and was fair and reasonable."

The result was a durable but flexible tool the state has used to prod the feds. Cleanup has been fraught with difficulty, technological challenges and sometimes federal defiance. But construction of a plant to turn the nuclear waste into stable glass logs — something Gregoire sought 15 years ago — is well under way.

Gregoire lowers the boom when she needs to. Six years ago, she sued the Clinton administration when the Energy Department failed to begin pumping liquid radioactive waste out of 149 aging single-shell tanks, some of which were leaking. Within months, Gregoire had a federal agreement with quantifiable deadlines for when the waste would be pumped into safer, double-shell tanks.

But more significantly, Gregoire returned to Hanford recently for a celebration of the fruits of that legal dustup. All of the pumpable waste — about 3 million gallons — is now in safer keeping.

The friendliness of the federal-state celebration in August is not lost on Lawrence, who left the Energy Department in 1990. "That the regulated and the regulators can come together to celebrate meeting that milestone is a real achievement."

The work at Hanford is far from over. The Bush administration has been particularly defiant, and Gregoire is in court on another important issue.

No question her opponent, former state Sen. Dino Rossi, shares Gregoire's high standards for cleanup. But in a Times interview, he suggested his friendly relationship with the Bush administration might actually advance Hanford cleanup. True enough, Bush and Rossi are on a first-name basis. But I'm skeptical Bush would halt Energy's increasing attempts to unilaterally lessen cleanup obligations, based on friendship.

Case in point: At the administration's behest, the Republican-controlled Congress just approved legislation permitting the Energy Department to leave radioactive sludge in underground tanks at South Carolina and Idaho sites rather than clean it up. And the governors of both those states are Republican, like Rossi.

There has been talk the feds might try the same thing at Hanford, too. Because of her history of success and persistence on Hanford's case, a Gov. Gregoire would be a formidable foe.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com. Look for more of her thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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