Hanford, Landfill Operators Seek Carbon Cap Rule Exemptions

Hanford, Landfill Operators Seek Carbon Cap Rule Exemptions
Workers at Hanford prepare to install an extraction well to send groundwater to a treatment facility. Ongoing cleanup work of legacy nuclear waste from World War II and Cold War plutonium production continues at Hanford under a federal consent decree revised in 2016, and a so-called Tri-Party Agreement between Washington, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Photo: Hanford.gov

The U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) is telling the administration of Washington Governor Jay Inslee that a planned carbon cap rule he is advancing by administrative fiat could wreak havoc with environmental cleanup of the Hanford nuclear waste site.

USDOE is seeking an exemption from the rule. So are large landfill operators represented by the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association (WRRA), plus the Spokane City Council on behalf of its Waste to Energy refuse incinerator.

Hanford Worries About Consent Decree

At Hanford, some 50 million gallons of nuclear waste dating to World War II and Cold War plutonium production are being cleaned up under a federal consent decree revised this year at the request of Washington.

It sets new timelines for ongoing removal of waste from single-shelled tanks and for the building, preparation and operation of a Waste Treatment Plant (WTP). About 11,000 workers are already engaged in a massive cleanup of solid and liquid waste at Hanford.

When the Department of Ecology issues the final carbon cap rule next month it would start out by requiring 24 major employers, which emit at least 100,000 metric tons of CO2 and CO2 equivalents annually, to reduce emissions five percent every three years. Or, they would likely have to buy the rough equivalent of carbon credits called “emission reduction units.” The emissions cap for program inclusion will ratchet down in coming years, bringing more employers in.

Cleanup Could Be Slowed, Deadlines Missed

Bryan Trimberger works in environmental compliance for USDOE in the Office of River Protection at Hanford. In Hanford comments to Ecology submitted recently, Trimberger wrote, “The WTP and support facilities, at full operational capacity, may emit over 150,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents…per year. Due to the size, complexity and scope of this first of a kind multi-billion dollar mixed radioactive waste facility, it may not be possible from an engineering, design, and operational basis for the WTP and support facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without reducing the WTP waste processing capacity.”

Trimberger continued, “Reducing processing capacity would slow remediation of waste from tanks well past their design life, as well as jeopardizing the Hanford site’s ability to meet the important deadlines set in the Consent Decree” and the Tri-Party Agreement signed by Ecology, USDOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

He added that buying emission reduction units from other parties to compensate for excess emissions, or sponsoring carbon reducing projects to comply with the rule, “may not be a viable option unless…the United States Congress appropriates additional funds.”

Hanford Seeks Exemption, Ecology Mum

Based on these concerns, USDOE proposes in the letter that Ecology exempt the Department from the rule.

Camille St. Onge, a communications manager in Ecology’s clean air and climate change division, said the agency will respond to all officially submitted comments only in a mandated “Concise Explanatory Statement.”

It will be issued on or after September 15 along with other final rule-making documents. If “new industries” are exempted, that likely would trigger another round of public comment and a new economic impact analysis, St. Onge said.

Currently exempted are agriculture, the TransAlta coal plan which is on a glide path to being decommissioned, plus emissions associated with imported electricity, and industrial production of woody biomass. The deadline for comments on the current draft final rule was July 22.

Lawmakers Have Differing Views

State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46) is also Executive Director of Hanford cleanup advocacy group Heart of America Northwest. He urged Ecology to deny the Hanford exemption request. “This is the U.S. Department of Energy. They are supposed to be taking a leadership approach to clean carbon-free energy production.” Polled said USDOE should find a way to operate the WTP utilizing a “model photovoltaic” solar energy source, or wind power. He also stated that if the Hanford site has to seek additional money from Congress, that should not be seen as an obstacle because “everything USDOE does requires appropriations.”

A differing view came from State Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42), chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee. He said, “I think what this really highlights are the incredible costs” of carbon cap rule compliance for qualifying employers.

Ericksen added that renewables at present are not feasible either broadly across society to meet energy needs, or for powering the planned Hanford Waste Treatment Plant. He said that is due to cost, capacity, storage and technology constraints.

Landfills Worried About ‘Crippling’ Compliance Costs

Hanford was not the only responder seeking an exemption to the carbon cap rule.

In comments to Ecology, WRRA stated, “landfills are exempt under all of the longstanding and well-established carbon reduction and cap and trade programs across the world,” including California’s AB 32 mechanism, and those of the European Union and nine northeastern U.S. states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

That is because it is too difficult to measure C02 and CO2-equivalent emissions from landfills and because other, better tailored agreements in each case regulate landfills. Compliance costs for larger Washington landfills, public and private, would in some cases be “crippling,” according to the association. Cowlitz County estimates a cost of $80 million through 2035, according to WRRA.

Costs of waste collection and disposal would rise sharply, and more waste would go to less-regulated smaller landfills in-state or others across state lines, WRRA added. The association said this means, “Washington will see increased…emissions…” WRRA also asked Ecology to ensure landfill programs to capture methane gas emissions be included as allowed credits for other emitters to buy for compliance purposes.

Also seeking an exemption was the Spokane City Council, on behalf of the Waste to Energy incinerator the city operates. It “should be exempted…because of the ongoing carbon emission reduction benefit” of about 250,000 tons that it provides annually, council members wrote.

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