Plant cleanup grossly underfunded
Few people in the Paducah area were surprised to learn that a congressional study found the Department of Energy's plan to clean up the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant falls about $3 billion short of what's needed to do the job.
If one thing is clear from more than nine months of controversy over contamination at the plant and its environs, it's that to federal officials talk is cheap and promises of action are just that — promises.
At the request of U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, the General Accounting Office, the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress, added up the costs of cleaning up the uranium enrichment plant site and concluded that DOE's plan is grossly inadequate. To be specific, the GAO believes a complete cleanup will cost about three times the $1.3 billion total estimated by the Energy Department.
Federal officials kept costs down by omitting huge amounts of contamination from their plan. The DOE cleanup program does not include nearly one million cubic feet of contaminated waste and scrap, 16 unused buildings and structures and thousands of cylinders of depleted uranium hexafluoride.
In 1998 Congress ordered the agency to build facilities to recycle the depleted uranium at the enrichment plants in Paducah and Portsmouth, Ohio. By now it should be obvious to even casual observers that DOE officials have no intention of following through on the congressional mandate.
Meanwhile, 57,000 cylinders of depleted uranium are rusting on the plant grounds in Paducah and Portsmouth. One of those cylinders was found last week in Paducah with a corroded plug lying on the ground beneath it and a small amount of material in the plug hole and on the ground.
Undoubtedly, the cylinders will pose a growing threat to the environment as they continue to deteriorate. But DOE has no plan to deal with that threat and many others created by the federal government over the Paducah plant's 48-year history.
For the past nine months DOE officials have paraded in and out of Paducah, issuing promises and assurances and apologetic statements about the environmental disaster the government inflicted on this area.
Last September Energy Secretary Bill Richardson declared: "I will be accountable, and you can hold me accountable. It is time the federal government accept its responsibility."
It's time to hold Richardson and his boss, President Clinton, accountable for the inadequacy of the cleanup plan. The president and Vice President Al Gore claim to be champions of the environment, but it's difficult to prove it by the administration's lukewarm response to a string of reports of widespread radioactive contamination at the Paducah uranium enrichment plant.
As Secretary Richardson said, this is a federal responsibility. So why is it so difficult for the government to develop and implement a realistic environmental cleanup program?
Perhaps the administration needs a little external motivation. Last fall Gov. Paul Patton threatened to provide that motivation in comments he made about DOE's plan to restore the environment around the gaseous diffusion plant by 2010. Said Patton: "We won't tolerate any delays and will do whatever we must politically and legally to meet the deadline."
The phrase "(we) will do whatever we must politically and legally to meet the deadline" carries implications that should send a chill down the political spine of the Clinton administration. It suggests the state of Kentucky may sue the federal government over its environmental failures in Paducah, and that the governor is prepared to use the bully pulpit to pressure the White House and the federal bureaucracy to complete the cleanup in a timely manner.
Given the continued obstinacy of the energy department, we believe it's time for the governor to begin following through on that threat. The state's position will never be stronger than it is now, with a hotly contested presidential campaign getting under way and Kentucky's electoral votes up for grabs.
Surely, Vice President Gore doesn't relish the idea of answering questions this fall about why the administration hasn't fully committed to cleaning up a federal nuclear dump in Kentucky.
The people of Paducah don't want to play political games with the gaseous diffusion plant, but the community is tired of unfulfilled promises. If Secretary Richardson and the Clinton administration want to be held accountable for the cleanup, then by all means let's hold them accountable.