September 17, 1999
Panel members hope for speedier cleanup
By Joe Walker Sun Business Editor Some members of a citizens' advisory group say they hope a recent onslaught of bad publicity will generate more money and a faster cleanup of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
The group met just before Energy Secretary Bill Richardson's public meeting Thursday night to disclose problems at the plant. A few members who stayed to hear Richardson said they want the disclosures fueled by two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court, a massive worker health study and a DOE investigation to make the public more concerned and involved with the cleanup.
"Hopefully, with the plant being in the spotlight, we can get increased funding to clean this stuff up and not let it drag on," said Bill Tanner, a member of the plant's SiteSpecific Advisory Board. "We have to see to it that the plant environment is safe for future generations."
Tanner superintendent for the West McCracken Water District, which surrounds the plant represents a crosssection of board members including businesspeople, environmental activists, neighbors, regulators, union officials and others. He said the publicity has caused the group to be more emphatic in its dialogue with the Department of Energy.
But another member, Paducah businesswoman Merryman Kemp, said she is concerned that it took widespread media coverage of the plant problems starting with a Washington Post story in July about one of the suits to get more of the public interested.
"We had an open house less than a month before the Post story broke, and we (members) ended up talking with each other," Kemp said.
The Post's story revealed an assortment of claims in a thensealed federal lawsuit by three plant workers and a large environmental organization. Among other things, the suit alleged that employees had been exposed to plutonium dust.
As publicity mounted, DOE disclosed that it was probing the claims and recently released findings that despite serious past problems, there is no imminent threat to workers or the public. Earlier this month, a second suit was filed seeking to include as many as 10,000 current and past employees and their families in allegations of contamination.
Although DOE and the state say repeated sampling shows the plant environment is safe, Kemp said public safety remains among her chief concerns.
She said she wonders if farm produce harvested near the plant and sold locally contains contamination. Another worry, Kemp said, is the longterm effects of plant contamination.
"Right now, for example, they really don't have the technology to clean up the groundwater," Kemp said.
DOE has provided city water to scores of homes near the plant threatened by a large area of groundwater contaminated with trichloroethylene, a common solvent, and technetium99, a radioactive contaminant in nuclear fuel rods processed by the plant many years ago. The department has a project to pump and treat the water but admits the technology is inefficient.
Mark Donham, an environmental activist who chairs the advisory board, said one of his biggest worries is that not all the plant waste and contamination is being properly characterized, which will lead to improper disposal.
"Second, they (DOE officials) are still not giving us enough information," he said. "It's like fighting toothandnail to get information out of them."
Donham's comments came after the board approved his resolution that DOE conduct an environmental impact statement for Vortec, a proposed project using intense heat to melt contaminated soil into glasslike pellets that do not leach. The department believes Vortec is safer than the current system of storing the soil, which is removed during cleanup, in thousands of drums at the plant.
DOE has said it has found no significant environmental impact from the Vortec process. Donham countered that the waste involved has not been properly characterized. He also said DOE did not list an alternative to the process, which would cost at least $20 million.
"There are alternatives other than just putting the stuff in a big burner and cooking it," Donham said.
DOE's David Tidwell said soil containing high levels of radioactive contamination cited by Donham would not qualify for Vortec. In response to another member's question, Tidwell said a finding of no significant impact would accelerate the project, while an impact statement could cost as much as $2 million and take two to four years to complete before that cleanup work could begin.
The board approved the Vortec impact statement resolution after several onlookers spoke in favor of it. They included Jackie Kittrell of the American Environmental Health Studies Project, which claims that a DOE toxic and lowlevel radioactive waste incinerator at Oak Ridge, Tenn., caused pollution that made workers sick. The people were employed at a DOE uranium enrichment plant that closed in the late 1980s.
Kittrell said the group believes that emissions from the incinerator contained beryllium, a toxic metal used in making nuclear weapons and fuel.
Richardson has expanded a program to provide compensation to workers at DOE facilities, including Paducah, who contracted berylliumrelated illnesses.
Before Oak Ridge had an advisory board, DOE opened the incinerator without an environmental impact statement and a proven method of monitoring stack emissions, Kittrell said. She urged the Paducah board to stand firm for an impact statement even if Vortec proves to be the best technology.
"It just makes a whole lot of sense," she said, "other than winding up llike we have."