In the struggle to clean up nuclear waste left by weapons programs and power plants, the West's men in black robes are ganging up on the U.S. Department of Energy. So far this year, when ruling in environmentalist lawsuits, no fewer than three federal judges have ordered the department to do a more careful job.
On March 31, District Judge Edwin Lodge in Boise ruled that the Energy Department can't merely bury 900,000 gallons of plutonium-contaminated waste at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls.
Then, on May 9, District Judge Alan McDonald in Washington ordered the Energy Department to temporarily stop shipping out-of-state transuranic nuclear waste to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation southwest of Spokane.
And on July 2, District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise ruled that the Energy Department is taking illegal shortcuts at the Idaho lab and where the Hanford tanks are leaking radioactive waste into groundwater and the Columbia River. Winmill said the department can't merely reclassify wastes as "incidental" to avoid moving them to a safer site.
"It's a clear statement by the courts - the high-level wastes buried in large storage tanks have to come out of the ground," says Jeremy Maxand, director of the Snake River Alliance, one of the plaintiffs.
But Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham isn't content to accept Winmill's ruling. On Aug. 1, Abraham sent a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., asking Congress to amend the Nuclear Waste Policy Act so the Energy Department can get its way.
This article first appeared in High Country News (www.hcn.org).