Tuesday, October 12, 1999

Energy Department fighting back in INEEL information war

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - The U.S. Department of Energy has decided to open a satellite office in Jackson to answer questions residents have about the proposed $1.2 billion incinerator at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

They hope to counteract the information war being waged by incinerator critics, led by attorney Gerry Spence, in a lawsuit against the agency.

Those critics have sponsored well-attended town meetings. Residents have heard terrifying accounts of illnesses, birth defects and government cover-ups.

Employees in the new federal office, which should open before the end of October, can dispel claims about waste buried in lava tubes and employees who are forbidden to talk to the public.

The unions and subcontractors at the INEEL want to talk to their counterparts in Jackson - construction workers and welders - about the safety standards they are held to.

Engineers will be happy to talk about the proposed incinerator, its unique design, emission limits and the expected health risks, said Beverly Cook, who holds the Energy Department's top post in Idaho. But she does not expect people to be persuaded by numbers and calculations.

Cook admits the agency has not been very successful in giving people the information they need to judge for themselves whether the incinerator is safe.

There are also two big credibility factors the agency has to deal with - public distrust of the Energy Department and incinerators in general.

The INEEL incinerator will be the first one built to new Environmental Protection Agency standards for hazardous waste incinerators. It is part of the state's 1995 nuclear waste deal with the federal government.

Under the terms of a pending permit with the state of Idaho, emissions from the stack would account for a minuscule fraction of pollution one breathes walking down the street. The radiation dose any person would receive from incinerator emissions in a year is 3,600 times less than what they receive from natural sources like rocks and sunlight.