In an abrupt reversal, the federal government has agreed to begin assessing the damage to natural resources caused by plutonium production...

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YAKIMA — In an abrupt reversal, the federal government has agreed to begin assessing the damage to natural resources caused by plutonium production at the Hanford nuclear reservation, the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site.

Such assessments typically cost millions of dollars and often serve as precursors to payment of monetary damages.

In 2002, the Yakama Nation sued the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which manages Hanford cleanup, seeking restoration of soil, water and plant and animal life that may have been injured by radioactive waste and other hazardous substances. The Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes joined the lawsuit, as did Washington and Oregon.

The Energy Department fought back, saying it was too soon to determine if there were injuries to the environment or whether reparations should be paid.

But the department said Tuesday it would begin assessing those damages in collaboration with two other federal agencies, the states and the Indian tribes.

“The only change was how much we’re willing to do when,” said Keith Klein, manager of the Energy Department’s Richland Operations office.

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Today, it is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup costs expected to top $50 billion.

Among other things, the Yakamas alleged that contamination of the nearby Columbia River contributed to declining Northwest salmon populations in the past 50 years.

A federal judge ordered the two sides into mediation in 2004 to try to resolve the dispute. At that time, Washington and Oregon tried to join the talks, but the Energy Department refused. The two states and the additional tribes then joined the lawsuit to compel the federal government to perform the review.

Klein said the department’s new stance was not a result of the litigation. “Typically, these are things that are dealt with after the cleanup has been completed,” he said. “The fact that we’re dealing with it now I think is evidence that people are starting to see an end to the cleanup.”

The new review will be integrated into the Energy Department’s cleanup at Hanford, Klein said. The department also expects to carry out the assessment and cleanup activities under its existing budget.

The Yakamas have estimated a full review of natural-resource damages could cost up to $100 million.

Tribal officials said they were cautiously optimistic about the announcement.

“The test will be what DOE actually does. If DOE fully funds the effort and works with the Yakama Nation, other tribes, states and federal agencies in an open, cooperative way, it will be good,” said Philip “Bing” Olney, chairman of the tribe’s radioactive hazardous waste committee. The states think an assessment will save money, result in better cleanup decisions, avoid the potential of having to perform cleanup twice and lead to better restoration of natural resources sooner, said Polly Zehm, deputy director for the Washington state Department of Ecology.