IN OUR OPINION
March 17, 2000
Gov. Paul Patton and the governors of Ohio and Tennessee are taking their complaints about the Department of Energy to the right person: President Clinton.
The president, after all, is the man in charge of the federal executive branch. If he demands prompt action from slow-moving bureaucrats, he's likely to get it.
With that in mind, Govs. Patton, Bob Taft of Ohio and Don Sundquist of Tennessee wrote to Clinton last Friday to protest repeated delays by DOE in allocating funds for the construction of facilities to recycle 14 billion pounds of depleted uranium.
That's 14 billion pounds of hazardous waste, stored outdoors in rusting metal cylinders, sitting on the grounds of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and two other uranium enrichment facilities.
Imagine how the federal government would respond if a private industry was storing billions of pounds of hazardous materials on its property and refusing to remove or recycle the waste. Undoubtedly, the repercussions would be swift and severe.
The DOE, a federal agency under the authority of a presidential cabinet appointee, has shown little interest in responding to a congressional mandate to build conversion plants for the depleted uranium. In 1998 Congress set aside $373 million for the facilities, but the unelected bureaucrats at DOE have repeatedly delayed action on the uranium conversion project.
As a result, the plants in Paducah, Portsmouth, Ohio, and Oak Ridge, Tenn., are being forced to maintain 57,000 cylinders of uranium hexaflouride waste. In this case, "maintain" appears to mean occasionally slapping a new coat of paint on the rusting cylinders.
The Clinton administration talks a good game on the environment, but it's setting a very poor example of environmental stewardship in Paducah, Portsmouth and Oak Ridge.
In Paducah alone, the government has dumped 65,000 tons of contaminated scrap and stored 38,000 cylinders of uranium hexaflouride. The plant is, in effect, a large hazardous waste site.
Even so, for nearly two years the Department of Energy has stubbornly resisted allocating sufficient funding to begin the process of converting the depleted uranium to safer materials.
The foot-dragging has continued through a round of voluntary layoffs at the newly privatized plants in Paducah and Portsmouth and the announcement of a massive workforce reduction that will begin in July. Hundreds of displaced workers could find jobs at the conversion facilities - if DOE finally moves the project to the fast track.
Kentucky's U.S. senators, Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning, along with 1st District Congressman Ed Whitfield, have pressured the agency to release the money. McConnell went as far as holding up Senate confirmation of a top DOE official, in an effort to force the agency to make a commitment to the conversion project.
Despite assurances from Energy Secretary Bill Richardson that the agency is moving ahead with the conversion plan, DOE officials still haven't requested proposals from firms to build the facilities.
It appears the tail is wagging the dog here. Congress has ordered the plants - and the energy secretary has promised action on them - yet obscure bureaucrats apparently are holding up the process.
If President Clinton is as compassionate and environmentally sensitive as he claims, he will respond decisively to the appeal from Govs. Patton, Taft and Sundquist. The governors shouldn't have to pound the administration's table to persuade it to follow through on a federal obligation.
It's up to the Clinton administration to restore the integrity of the environment at the enrichment plants in Paducah, Portsmouth and Oak Ridge. In the process, the administration can help hard-working people who are losing their jobs through no fault of their own.
The governors are placing the buck where it belongs - on the president's desk.