The Worst Dirt: Washington's Radioactive Sludge

Beneath the dirt of a lonesome desert plateau cradled in a bend of the Columbia River, 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge has been oozing out of Manhattan Project-era underground storage tanks.

This nasty gray silty-substance is a lethal mixture of sand, soil, and deteriorated nuclear fuel, and it has formed — you guessed it — a three-dimensional toxic plume beneath the Hanford Site in Washington State, immediately threatening contamination of the West Coast’s largest river.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s plan to stop the leak? Well, it’s … treading water, reports the Los Angeles Times.

After decades of a stop-and-start cleanup effort (including the mothballing of failed multibillion-dollar sludge-to-glass processing facility in 2012), Washington State’s Department of Ecology drafted a letter this summer to the DOE stating "grave concerns" that the project is at risk of violating federal court orders and missing key clean-up deadlines, despite some recent feel-good sludge-relocation progress trumpeted by, as of this week, Former … Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.

Meanwhile, the DOE, under the direction of the Trump administration, has recently taken steps to semantically change the way it classifies nuclear waste on the site, which would essentially lower the goalposts of processing and federal cleanup obligations. This seemingly thrifty pro-sludge rebrand sparked condemnation from the state's governor and everyone’s favorite enviro-dad Jay Inslee.

Last week's episode of the podcast Stay Tuned with Preet even featured the story, when author Michael Lewis classified the plume as a case study of a so-called "fifth risk:" –– a calamitous threat that a bureaucratic system tasked with managing could be fundamentally incapable of doing so.

It is estimated the sludge could begin seeping into the river as soon as within the next decade. The plume of doom steadily oozes on.

Read more on The Los Angeles Times.