Groups Win Landmark Nuclear Weapons Cleanup Victory
by Bob Schaeffer and Marylia Kelley
To settle a lawsuit brought by 39 environmental and peace organizations, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has signed a landmark agreement which will increase public oversight of its efforts to address severe contamination problems in the nation's nuclear weapons complex. Tri-Valley CAREs worked long and diligently on the case, and was one of several organizations participating on the lawsuit "steering committee."
The settlement ends nine years of litigation charging that DOE failed to develop its cleanup plans properly. DOE faced a contempt of court hearing before Judge Sporkin in federal court in Washington, DC for not complying with a previous legal agreement in the case.
"From the perspective of protecting the nation's water, air and land, this settlement is superior to the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement DOE had originally agreed to prepare," said David Adelman, a Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer who represented Tri-Valley CAREs and the other plaintiff groups. "We now have the data, the resources and the processes necessary to make DOE's environmental work more accountable to the public." The Washington, D.C. law firm of Meyer & Glitzenstein also provided pro bono litigation counsel.
What we won
Key elements of this historic settlement include:
** Creation of a regularly updated, publicly accessible database including details about contaminated facilities and waste generated or controlled by DOE's cleanup, defense, science and nuclear energy programs, including domestic and foreign research reactor spent fuel, listing characteristics such as waste type, volume, and radioactivity, as well as transfer and disposition plans;
** DOE funding for at least two national stakeholder forums to assure the database is comprehensive, accurate and useful;
** Completion of an environmental analysis, with public input, of plans for "long-term environmental stewardship" at contaminated DOE sites to ensure protection of workers, the public and surrounding communities;
** Establishment of a $6.25 million fund for non-profit groups and tribes to use to monitor DOE environmental activities and conduct technical reviews of the agency's performance;
** Payment of plaintiffs' legal fees and expenses incurred to litigate this case; and
** Continuing federal court oversight to assure adherence to the agreement.
In sum, this is a major victory both for the environment and for public participation. We have won access to the tools the public needs to monitor DOE's compliance with the nation's obligation to address the radioactive and toxic legacy of nuclear weapons production. DOE's "cleanup" program is slated to become the largest environmental project in U.S. history, with an estimated total cost of more than $250 billion.
Further, since the mid-1980s Tri-Valley CAREs and its colleague organizations have been asking for a breakdown of DOE-generated waste by program and facility. Now, using DOE's own data, we'll be able to demonstrate the link between ongoing U.S. nuclear weapons research and production activities and ongoing toxic and radioactive contamination. The cause and effect relationship will become increasingly clear: more nuclear weapons production means more nuclear waste.
How we got there
Many of the groups first sued DOE in 1989, claiming that the agency must conduct a thorough analysis before moving ahead with plans to (1) address the radioactive and toxic legacy of nuclear weapons production and (2) modernize its weapons facilities. The next year, DOE signed a legal agreement promising a full public review of its proposals. In 1994, however, DOE leaders decided to abandon the Environmental Restoration Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement process without consent of the plaintiffs or Judge Sporkin, who had approved the initial settlement. In April, 1997, plaintiffs went back to Judge Sporkin seeking enforcement of the original agreement.
In a series of court hearings, Judge Sporkin made it clear that he expected DOE to abide by its commitments. Earlier this year, he ordered DOE to "show cause" why it should not be held in contempt for failing to conduct the environmental analysis. In depositions taken by the plaintiffs, former Energy Secretary James Watkins and other former senior DOE officials strongly backed plaintiffs claims. The discussions which led to today's settlement were conducted at Judge Sporkin's urging.
Tri-Valley CAREs and the other organizations and attorneys on the "steering committee" are continuing to work together via regular conference calls to ensure full implementation of the settlement gains. As outlined in the agreement, we are moving forward to hire a firm to administer the $6.25 million grant fund.
Simultaneously, we are drafting criteria with an eye toward getting funding as equitably and effectively as possible into the hands of community-based organizations and tribes across the country who are affected by DOE operations. Too, we are working with DOE to achieve broad-based public participation in the upcoming national stakeholders' meetings to guide the waste data bases. Details will follow in future editions of Citizen's Watch.
As you, our readers, know, the cleanup "count" in the lawsuit, for which we just achieved this big, big win, is one of two "counts." The other deals with the inadequacy of DOE's environmental review of its modernization or so-called "Stockpile Stewardship" plans to build and operate a new nuclear weapons complex into the mid-21st century.
As we reported previously in Citizen's Watch, we have won some gains in the "Stockpile Stewardship" part of the lawsuit as well. For example, DOE and Livermore Lab must prepare a Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on the construction of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), due to the court order we obtained after construction crews dug up a large, undocumented toxic waste dump with over 100 PCB-laden capacitors. Further, that court order mandates additional environmental investigation in the NIF construction area. Those analyses, carried out by Livermore Lab, have just uncovered more PCB-contaminated soils. (Please see the article that follows for details.)
We will publicize the date, time and place of the public hearing on NIF construction as soon as it is available, most likely in Spring 1999. Your attendance at the hearing will be important.
http://www.igc.org/tvc/ - is our web site, please visit us there!
(925) 443-7148 - is our phone
Working for peace, justice and a healthy environment since 1983, Tri-Valley CAREs has been a member of the nation-wide Alliance for Nuclear Accountability in the U.S. since 1989, and is a co-founding member of the international Abolition 2000 network for the elimination of nuclear weapons.