The Paducah Sun

October 27, 1999

Time to take action at plant

By Bill Bartleman
The Paducah Sun


It's time to stop pointing fingers of blame and take aggressive action to clean up radioactive contamination at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell told U.S. Department of Energy officials at a Senate hearing Tuesday.

McConnell, who chaired the hearing, said that in next year's budget, DOE should request whatever amount of money is needed to meet cleanup goals and leave it up to President Clinton or Congress to cut the funding. He also suggested that DOE has a poor track record for policing itself in its environmental management and hinted that he may introduce legislation that would give some other agency oversight of DOE's cleanup activities.

"There is a tendency to point fingers and blame this mess on someone else," McConnell, R-Louisville, told Elizabeth Huntoon, DOE assistant secretary of the Office of Environmental Management. "I don't want to keep looking to the past and hear people say these problems didn't happen on their watch. It is your responsibility to come up with a game plan. If you request the funding and it isn't approved, then you will have a right to point fingers at someone else."

The theme was echoed by Gov. Paul Patton, one of 11 people to testify before the Energy and Water Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant site is one of the most environmentally contaminated in the South, and the federal government is not devoting the necessary funds to meet its obligation to clean it up," Patton said.

Although DOE promised in a contract with the state to complete the cleanup by 2010, Patton said the deadline can't be met under current funding priorities. "We won't tolerate any delays and will do whatever we must politically and legally to meet the deadline," he said. He said that means possibly suing to force DOE to meet its obligation.

Patton said new estimates prepared by the Kentucky Natural Resources Cabinet put the cleanup cost at $1.9 billion during the next 10 years, not the $1 billion estimated by DOE.

Huntoon said she could not confirm the $1.9 billion figure but did acknowledge that DOE's latest cost estimate has risen to $1.2 billion. She also said the funding schedule for the next 10 years will fall far short of even the $1.2 billion figure.

Patton said DOE spending at the Paducah plant has averaged $37 million a year since 1988, with most of that going for waste management and analysis. He said that under DOE's current funding schedule, only $603 million would be spent from now until 2010.

"As I have learned more about the nature of the environmental hazards at the Paducah site, I have become most alarmed, not by the extent of the contamination ... but by the fact that DOE does not currently have, nor does it plan to request in the near future, sufficient funds to address these environmental concerns," Patton said. "Based on the current rate of progress, it won't be cleaned up in our lifetime."

Patton wants Congress to appropriate $100 million more for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and at least $200 million in each of the next 10 years.

Huntoon said DOE already has revised its schedule for cleaning up the area known as "drum mountain," which contains thousands of crushed drums contaminated with radioactive material. Drum mountain is thought to be a major source for groundwater contamination that has spread from the plant toward the Ohio River.

Huntoon said an extra $5 million that Congress added to the budget will mean drum mountain should be cleaned up by the end of 2000, about two years ahead of schedule. McConnell, who visited the plant in August and saw drum mountain, seemed skeptical. "That is the big news at today's hearing," he said, adding that he would keep an eye on that commitment. "If that can be acomplished, it would be a visible sign of progress that I think everyone would applaud."

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who normally chairs the panel and also heads the Senate Budget Committee, cautioned that the government is ''massively oversubscribed'' in its nuclear cleanup obligations.

''There is more to do than can possibly be done in the foreseeable future,'' Domenici said. ''However, it is my intention ... to continue in the establishment of priorities and to ensure that the federal government meets its obligations.''

Besides more cleanup funds, McConnell said he wants DOE to accelerate the health screening of current and former workers at not only the enrichment plant in Paducah, but also at a similar plant in Portsmouth, Ohio, and an enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that closed about 10 years ago.

He said DOE should follow the recommendation of Dr. Steven B. Markowitz and increase health screening funding for the current year from $1 million to $5.8 million.

Markowitz, a physician and professor at Queens College in New York, is in charge of a program that is screening current and former workers for illness caused by possible exposure to radiation and other hazardous materials.

"Lung cancer is the most important specific cancer risk for workers at the gaseous diffusion plants," Markowitz said in his testimony, adding that lung cancer screening isn't currently part of the program. He said increasing the funding level to $5.8 million would allow for the purchase of a portable CT scanner that could be used to test workers at all three sites.

He said the use of a CT scanner is new in lung screening. He said that without financial help, Paducah's medical community isn't likely to have that type of equipment for at least four or five years.

"Low-dose CT scans detected nearly four times as many lung cancers as routine chest X-rays," Markowitz said.

The benefit for workers is early detection of lung cancer and a higher survival rate, he said. "The early detection normally increases the five-year survival rate to 70 to 80 percent, compared with an overall five-year survival rate of 12 percent," Markowitz said.

The increased funding for early screening was one of several actions requested in testimony from David Fuller, president of the plant's atomic workers' union.

"Medical monitoring by verified occupational physicians is needed today to identify disease that hopefully can be caught early enough to be successfully treated," Fuller said. "The DOE's medical monitoring program needs to be expanded and funded as promised by the secretary of energy."

Under Markowitz's proposal to increase funding to $5.8 million, he said 15,000 current and former workers from all three plants could be tested during the first year. With that schedule, he said, all current workers would be screened within two years and all former workers within four or five years.

Fuller, as he has at previous hearings, said workers need other protection and benefits. "Monitoring is imperative, but without any other remedy, monitoring is simply a process to watch people get sick and die," he said.

Fuller asked for coverage under the federal workers' compensation system that places the burden of proof of illness on the government and not the worker, and health insurance coverage for all at-risk workers and their families through retirement.

First District U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, testified in support of the union's effort to speed the rate of screening workers for health problems and in increasing their benefits for work-related illness.

At Whitfield's urging, the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee conducted a hearing last month that investigated worker concerns about environmental conditions at the plant.

"I share David's genuine concern about both the short- and long-term health and safety of the workers he represents," Whitfield said. "We cannot let mistakes of the past continue in the future. It is imperative that we adopt legislation to establish a federal compensation program for employees who have suffered illness resulting from their exposure to radioactive materials."

U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Southgate, was critical of how DOE has spent cleanup funds since 1989. He chaired a Senate Energy Committee hearing in Paducah in August that also looked into environmental practices at the plant.

"Ten years have gone by, (and) $400 million has been spent," Bunning said. "And nothing has changed. Not one contaminated drum has been removed. Not one ounce of spent uranium has been converted. And the plume of contaminated waste that includes PCBs continues to flow toward the Ohio River.

"Something needs to be changed, and we cannot wait another day to do it. The workers in this plant have been betrayed. The community that supported this facility has been betrayed. They trusted the U.S. government. It is time to provide the resources to clean up this mess, to provide health-care benefits to those who need it and to correct the environmental damage that has been done."

Huntoon said the $400 million has not been wasted. She said the first step in cleaning up the plant is identifying the types of contamination and the sources of contamination. She said most of the $400 million has been spent on identifying waste.

Huntoon also rejected a suggestion by McConnell and Whitfield that Paducah and Portsmouth be separated from the Oak Ridge Operations Office and placed under its own operations office.

She agreed that Paducah in the past may not have received the attention and funding it deserved, but she said that is being corrected. She said new managers have been appointed in Oak Ridge, and "I think you need to give them a chance to prove themselves."

Whitfield, however, said Oak Ridge managers had their chance and failed. "Those plants (Paducah and Portsmouth) are not being treated in an equitable manner in the distribution of cleanup funds," Whitfield said.

McConnell said spending priorities have been higher at facilities in Oak Ridge that have a lower health risk and lower priority than some of the cleanup activities at Paducah and Portsmouth. He said a change is needed so DOE officials in Paducah and Portsmouth can establish their own priorities without having to go through Oak Ridge.