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By: Thomas W. Ferns, NEPA Document Manager, Richland Operations Office, and Yardena Mansoor, Office of NEPA Policy and Assistance 

A 50-year land-use plan for the Hanford Site? Some said it couldn’t be done. Too many factions, they said, with irreconcilably different visions for the future. Would NEPA be a help or a hindrance in developing such a land-use plan?

It turns out that the Hanford Comprehensive Land-Use Plan EIS Record of Decision (ROD) (64 FR 61615; November 12, 1999) marks the end of a successful, albeit long and arduous planning process. It was a process that many stakeholders – whose diverse views could not all be accommodated – acknowledged was open and fair. Importantly, the EIS allowed DOE to make decisions immediately to preserve uniquely valuable natural resources at the Site – notably expanding a National Wildlife Refuge on the Wahluke Slope, on the northern shore of the Columbia River within the Hanford Site. Over a longer term, the Record of Decision seeks to balance the Department’s continuing land-use needs at the Hanford Site with its desire to preserve important ecological and cultural values of the Site and allow for economic development in the area.

Mapping out a long-term comprehensive blueprint for the 586-square-mile Hanford Site in southeastern Washington was no easy task. The experience demonstrates the versatility and usefulness of the NEPA review process in land-use decision making, and the importance of a robust stakeholder involvement process.

This article examines the relationship between Hanford’s remedial action and land-use decision making, describes the stakeholder involvement approaches (first with a stakeholder working group and then with cooperating agencies), and describes the environmental benefits from this NEPA process.

Initial EIS Scope: Remediation and Land Uses for Contaminated Areas

Early in 1989, DOE negotiated a Federal Facility Agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) that established decision-making responsibilities and an enforceable schedule for remediation of the Hanford Site.

The cleanup negotiators soon realized that a plan for land uses could facilitate remediation planning. Otherwise, specific land-use decisions would have to be made on a project-by-project basis, using EPA’s default cleanup goal – residential use – in areas where many were advocating a less costly environmental preservation goal. For some parts of the Hanford Site, such as the 200-Area waste management facilities, a residential use goal would be technically infeasible or economically prohibitive, and could cause more environmental injury and human health risks than it would avoid.

In August 1992, DOE published a Notice of Intent to prepare an EIS on cleanup strategies to meet alternative objectives for contaminated areas of the Hanford Site. These alternatives included unrestricted uses (including residential and agricultural); uses with limitations, such as on groundwater use; and exclusive future use by DOE (for waste management and buffer zones).

Working Group Established Common Ground

EPA, Ecology, and DOE organized a process to involve stakeholders in developing a vision for the future uses of the Hanford Site. The agencies established the Hanford Future Site Uses Working Group, with representatives of labor, environmental, governmental, agricultural, economic development, and citizen interest groups, and of Tribal governments. The Working Group was charged with establishing the common ground from which priorities and preferences could be debated. In December 1992, the Working Group submitted its final report, The Future for Hanford: Uses and Cleanup, to DOE as EIS scoping input, thus framing the key elements of the EIS:

  • dividing the Site into sub-areas, 
  • identifying reasonable alternative uses for each subarea, and 
  • stating a set of group values to be respected in the land-use planning process.

Building on the Working Group’s report, DOE issued a Draft Hanford Remedial Action EIS (August 1996) that assessed the potential environmental impacts of attaining the cleanup conditions needed for alternative land uses and the impacts of the uses themselves.

Changed EIS Focus: Land Uses for Entire Site

Based on comments on the 1996 Draft EIS, DOE decided to refocus the EIS on a proposed Comprehensive Land-Use Plan because remediation decisions would be made by EPA and Ecology, as lead regulatory agencies, and DOE as an implementing agency.

With the scope of the EIS limited to land-use issues, DOE also decided to consider the entire Site (not just contaminated areas). Because of this change, DOE decided to prepare a Revised Draft EIS, and also to expand stakeholder participation by involving agencies and Tribes with land-use interests.

Agencies and Tribes: Full NEPA Partners with Irreconcilable Interests

Nine parties responded to DOE’s invitation to participate as either a cooperating agency or, in the case of the Tribal Nations, a consulting government: the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within the U.S. Department of the Interior; the City of Richland and Benton, Franklin, and Grant Counties; the Department of Environmental Restoration and Waste Management of the Nez Perce Tribe; and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Together they reached substantial agreement on the land-use category definitions, a framework for the environmental analyses, and the Comprehensive Land-Use Plan’s policies and implementing procedures.

However, some of the cooperating agencies and consulting Tribal governments strongly favored mutually incompatible future land uses, especially with regard to industrial and agricultural development versus environmental preservation. To provide fair voices for competing interests, cooperating agencies and consulting Tribes developed their own alternatives for consideration in the revised Draft EIS, using guidelines and a common outline to yield technically parallel information. The EIS presented these alternatives as written by these parties. Although this collaborative process required time, it ultimately saved time by enabling preparation of an EIS that adequately considered the full range of reasonable alternatives.

DOE and the cooperating agencies created six land-use alternatives, each consisting of a map that designated allowable uses for sub-areas within the Site. Except for No Action (continuing current land uses, land management processes, and intergovernmental relationships), each alternative represents one or more Tribe, Federal, or local agency preferred alternative.

Hanford’s Unique Resources

  • The Hanford Site contains a large tract of rare and unfragmented shrub-steppe habitat and rare animal and plant species. 
  • Along the north and east of the Hanford Site runs the last free flowing stretch of the Columbia River, known as the Hanford Reach, valued for its recreational uses and as prime salmon spawning habitat. The Reach’s northern shore, known as the Wahluke Slope, rises in a chalk bluff formation whose stability has been threatened by agricultural irrigation.

DOE’s preferred alternative in the Revised Draft EIS would consolidate waste management operations in the Central Plateau of the Site, allow industrial development in the eastern and southern portions of Hanford, increase recreational access to the Columbia River, expand an existing Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge on the north side of the Site to include all of the Wahluke Slope, and allow limited commercial grazing on the Site.

The Department of the Interior agencies’ alternative would increase Federal stewardship of Hanford’s natural resources. The local governments’ alternative would allow agricultural and grazing activities on the Hanford Site and increase industrial development. Two Tribal alternatives called for increasing traditional Tribal uses while preserving natural and cultural resources. The Tribes and DOE “agreed to disagree” on the interpretation of treaty rights in the interest of moving the EIS forward.

NEPA Process Enhanced Environmental Values

Public comments on the Revised Draft EIS primarily addressed environmental issues such as Hanford’s unique shrub-steppe habitat, the importance of protecting the Hanford Reach to preserve salmon spawning sites, the proposed Congressional designation of the Hanford Reach as a Wild and Scenic River, and the historic significance of the Hanford Site’s first nuclear reactor. Comments overwhelmingly favored a more environmentally protective alternative – with no cattle grazing, less gravel mining for remediation activities, and more preservation of wildlife and habitat than DOE’s Revised Draft preferred alternative.

Influenced by this public preference, DOE ultimately decided to increase environmental protection of parts of the Site. Accordingly, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and DOE modified their management agreements to allow expansion of the Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge to the entire Wahluke Slope. The Record of Decision, which adopts the Comprehensive Land-Use Plan, “creates a roadmap for planning appropriate industrial development in the eastern and southern parts of Hanford while defining areas of the site where waste management will be handled,” said Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management Dr. Carolyn L. Huntoon.

Plan Includes Implementation Procedures

To help ensure that future decisions are consistent with the Comprehensive Land-Use Plan and that appropriate NEPA review takes place for future land-use proposals, the EIS includes an unusual chapter on implementation procedures. Under these procedures, adopted in the Record of Decision, proposals for new facilities and activities on the Site, whether from private or government proponents, will be evaluated by DOE’s Realty Officer and NEPA Compliance Officer, jointly with a Site Planning Advisory Board that includes representatives from the cooperating agencies and affected Tribal governments.

For more information on the Hanford Comprehensive Land-Use Plan EIS, contact Tom Ferns at or call 509-372-0649.