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Partnerships for Change
NRDC has worked with many community-based organizations to defend people's right to a safe and healthy environment.

from Katrina
Fighting for Green Space Cleaning Up Anacostia
Shielding Children from Pesticide Exposure Improving
Air Quality
in an Urban Neighborhood
Protecting Children From Rat Poisons Forcing Nuclear Waste Clean-up

Forcing Nuclear Waste Clean-up
Washington State, 2002 - present day

Photo of a Yakama Nation fisheries technician
A Yakama Nation fisheries technician at the Hanford site.
Photo courtesy U.S. DOE

The Challenge: From 1943 to 1987, the federal government produced plutonium for nuclear weapons at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which sits on more than 500 square miles of desert in south-central Washington. Over many years, this process has produced millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste, which is stored underground in scores of vast tanks. Since their burial, about 67 of the tanks have leaked more than one million gallons of waste into the soil and, today, Hanford is one of the most contaminated nuclear sites in the United States. Local communities suspect that this waste has already polluted underlying groundwater along its route to the nearby Columbia River, which supplies water and fish stocks to the Yakama Nation. They attribute the high rate of cancer among the Yakama to continued exposure to contamination from the site. Following many years of pressure from the Yakama and NRDC, the DOE slowly moved forward with a clean up effort. But in early 2002, the Bush administration devised a plan to sidestep completing the $50 billion job. While the law mandates that high-level waste must be solidified and buried in a permanent repository, the administration proposed reclassifying some of the waste as low-level and leaving it in the leaky tanks.

Working Together: In February 2002 NRDC went bought litigation to force the DOE to protect the health and safety of the Yakama Nation and millions of others who utilize the water and fish stocks of the Columbia River. Several co-plaintiffs connected with two other radioactive waste sites that would also be affected by the waste reclassification-joined the suit. Tanks holding high-level waste at an Idaho facility sit directly above the Snake River aquifer, a main water source for the Shoshone and Bannock tribes. Another facility, at Savannah River in South Carolina, also threatens groundwater. NRDC joined with the Yakama Nation, the Shoshone-Bannock tribes and the Snake River Alliance to file a lawsuit to block the reclassification of the waste, arguing that such a move would violate the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

Today: In July 2003, NRDC celebrated a short-lived victory in the case when a federal district court ruled that the DOE could not reclassify the waste in order to avoid cleaning it up. The Bush administration quickly appealed the ruling, but didn't stop there. Unable to win the lawsuit, the administration decided to change the law. Energy Department Secretary Spencer Abraham asked Congress to pass legislation that would allow officials to reclassify the waste. Administration supporters in Congress inserted a provision into a Department of Defense funding bill in late 2004 that gave the DOE the power to reclassify and abandon the waste at the Idaho and South Carolina sites. Washington's Hanford was not affected. In November 2004, the case was dealt another setback when an appellate court overturned the favorable July ruling, stating there wasn't enough information yet to determine whether the DOE was in violation of the law. NRDC will likely appeal the ruling, and is promising to continue the fight. "This is an important case for national environmental clean up, and it also has a profound impact on the future of the Yakama tribe," said Geoff Fettus, NRDC senior attorney. "We will continue to explore all legal options to make sure the DOE cleans up its mess."

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