States, Nez Perce Seekby Shannon Dininny, Associated Press
RICHLAND, Wash. -- Washington, Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe have asked to participate in mediation talks involving a lawsuit filed by the Yakama Nation over restoration of natural resources along the Columbia River at south-central Washington's Hanford nuclear reservation.
The Yakama Nation filed suit in 2002 against the U.S. Department of Energy, seeking restoration of the site's natural resources that may have been damaged from 40 years of plutonium production for the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal. A court ordered the Yakama Nation and the Justice Department, which represents the federal agency, to mediation talks earlier this year.
In a letter mailed this week to both parties, Washington and Oregon asked to join the mediation talks within the next 30 days or they may file suit.
"As statutory natural resource trustees, Oregon and Washington have a strong interest in issues relating to natural resource damages at Hanford," the letter said.
The Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho also has asked to join the talks.
The Yakama Nation supports the move to expand the talks to include other stakeholders, according to a letter by Raymond Givens, an attorney for the tribe.
"At this juncture it appears that resolution of issues in this litigation would be well served by inclusion of these entities in the mediation," the letter said.
The Yakama Nation has alleged that contamination of the Columbia River with radioactive waste and other hazardous substances has contributed to declining Northwest salmon populations in the last 50 years. The tribe contends the Energy Department has failed to ensure the restoration of damaged natural resources at the 586-square-mile reservation.
The Energy Department on Wednesday announced it would immediately begin conducting preassessment screenings at parts of the site. The screenings involve reviewing documents already in existence about any natural resource damage at Hanford to determine where more information is needed and where impacts to the environment may have occurred.
The Energy Department had previously said those screenings would not begin until 2006.
It is too soon, however, to determine if there were injuries to the environment or whether reparations should be paid, said Beth Bilson, assistant manager for the river corridor for the Energy Department.
"If we go this way and it becomes obvious we're making a mistake, we're not opposed to a change," Bilson told members of the Hanford Natural Resource Trust Council, which is made up of representatives of the Nez Perce, Yakama and Umatilla tribes, the states of Washington and Oregon, and the federal Energy, Interior and Fish and Wildlife departments. "But it's our opinion the vast majority of the ecosystem out there is healthy."
The Yakama Nation filed suit under federal Superfund law provisions, which allow tribes and other governments to sue polluters who discharge hazardous substances that damage natural resources.
For 40 years, Hanford made plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons, beginning with the top-secret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation's most contaminated nuclear site. Cleanup costs are expected to total $50 billion to $60 billion, with the work to be finished by 2035.
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