The Paducah Sun

November 6, 1999

DOE to discuss fencing wildlife area

By Joe Walker
Sun Business Editor

The Department of Energy will meet Monday with a citizens' group to discuss the highly controversial idea of fencing the West Kentucky Wildlife Management Area to better protect the public from possible contamination from the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

Local DOE officials say they will fence the area only as a last resort or if ordered.

"It's an option," acting DOE Site Manager Dale Jackson said earlier this week during a plant tour with representatives of the Sun. "But it's not a viable option."

The 7,000-acre refuge, a patchwork of state and federal ownership, is extensively used for hunting, fishing, field trials and other activities.

State Wildlife Commissioner Tom Bennett said no one had advised state officials of any imminent health or safety threat from piles of mildly radioactive rubble, one of the public hazards in the wildlife area. The piles came from construction at the plant many years ago. Based on what he knows, Bennett said, his agency would oppose closing the wildlife area.

DOE officials will meet with the plant's Site-Specific Advisory Board at 6 p.m. Monday in the Information Age Park Resource Center. A subcommittee of the group met Oct. 28 to discuss fencing and other issues, said Greg Cook, spokesman for Bechtel Jacobs, DOE's top environmental contractor.

The department is grappling with problems accented by public and media scrutiny after federal lawsuits were filed earlier this year. The suits allege that decades of contamination at the plant harmed workers and the public.

The Courier-Journal in Louisville reported Friday that two old pits - covering six acres inside the northwest part of the plant's fenced area and used for burying plant equipment - were classified recently as "secret" by DOE.

Cook told the Sun that during the past month, DOE declared one area as a classified burial yard based on interviews from past employees as to what they buried there. A second pit had been "clearly understood for many years" to be a classified burial ground, he said.

Reclassifying the other area was unrelated to an employee's becoming ill from vapors released during groundwater test drilling at the site Sept. 24, Cook said. Work was suspended in the area, leading DOE to contact former workers to find out what may have been buried.

Results of the interviews raised concerns, said Gabe Marciante, DOE's classification officer for its Oak Ridge Operations office in Tennessee. He told The Courier-Journal that although the technology used to enrich uranium at Paducah is about 50 years old, the government still wants to keep it from groups or nations that want to develop nuclear weapons.

Also this week, DOE discovered still another procedural violation of workers' putting unauthorized waste in a storage area inside the plant that could contain radioactive material.

In the first incident, on Monday, electricians of USEC Inc., which operates the plant under lease from DOE, repaired and replaced light ballasts in a building used to clean metal parts. Without authorization, they disposed of the old ballasts in a DOE radioactive material storage area inside the building that is at a low risk for a nuclear accident.

The second incident happened Wednesday night. Cook said a Bechtel Jacobs subcontract employee was asked to place a fire blanket over some equipment in one of the plant's process buildings to protect the equipment during overhead electrical work. After considerable discussion, the employee obliged. The act violated procedure because he was not authorized to put the blanket in a radioactive material storage area.

"It did result in a small increase to the very small risk of criticality in that storage area," Cook said. "The blanket has the ability to reflect neutrons (increasing the chance of a nuclear accident)."

A plantwide review of such procedures took place after the first incident. The second error prompted a ban on entering such areas without written authorization from Gordon Dover, Bechtel Jacobs' new projects manager, Cook said.

The violations took place as DOE was preparing a corrective action plan in response to an investigative team's findings. One of them was inadequate posting of warning signs in parts of the wildlife reserve surrounding the plant. Although the posting problem has been corrected, DOE is considering other actions to improve protection, Cook said.

"We're looking at a range of options available to protect the public out there," he said. "Right now we have a mix of approaches depending on the hazard, but we're not satisfied we have the right mix just yet."

DOE's corrective action plan, being prepared for review by the advisory board, includes other options, such as moving the rubble back inside the plant boundary. The management area abuts the plant's 744 fenced acres on three sides.

Another option is fencing areas of particular hazards. Cook said that is being done in some spots such as that of radioactive "black ooze" discovered earlier this fall on DOE land in the management area. The substance, found seeping from the ground, is believed to be roofing material removed from the plant decades ago.

Some of the three dozen rubble piles have been sprayed with red paint and marked with warning signs, although critics contend the markings could be missed. The materials were dumped in the refuge with the agreement of the state, partly to control erosion.

DOE plans to do nothing with 28 of the 37 areas of concern because tests have shown the radiation is not above natural levels, said department spokesman Steven Wyatt. The remaining piles are radioactive and are being studied, he said.

Tests on the rubble since 1994 by a DOE contractor have found a wide variety of radioactive isotopes, including plutonium, neptunium, uranium and cesium. A 1997 environmental report on the area said radiation was minimal and did not threaten the public.

Plant critics are skeptical of the test results, especially in light of lawsuits. One suit alleges that DOE environmental contractors lied to the public about levels of contamination.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.