Despite those claims, Bunning says agency is 'passing the buck.'
By Bill Bartleman firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Paducah site cleanup plan is large in scope, technically complex and spans a 10-year period,” Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management Dr. Carol Huntoon said Monday at a Senate hearing chaired by U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Southgate. “It is also clear that such a plan, by its scope, duration and the nature of the complicated site conditions it addresses, faces inherent uncertainties.”
However, Huntoon said DOE is working to overcome the concerns and is making significant progress in its commitment to clean up the plant of most radioactive and chemical contamination by 2010.
Bunning, however, said he wasn't impressed by what he heard from Huntoon and other DOE officials.
“I heard nothing that was encouraging, other than the fact they have started removing 'drum mountain,'” Bunning said after the hearing. “It is my observation that the Department of Energy is passing the buck to the next administration. They are doing the six-month shuffle.”
Bunning doubts the accuracy of DOE's estimates that the cleanup will cost $1 billion. He said GAO's estimates of $3.5 billion appear to be more accurate, and he predicted there won't be significant progress unless Congress appropriates funds for specific aspects of the cleanup.
“We don't want them using funds to maintain the contamination, but want them to use the funds for actual cleanup,” Bunning said. At a hearing last year, Bunning was told that more than 75 percent of $400 million spent from 1988 until 1999 was used to maintain contamination and conduct studies.
The April GAO report identified several factors that make the cleanup difficult and more costly than DOE estimates.
The factors include:
--Uncertainties about the extent and source of contamination.
--Whether technology exists to remove the contamination from groundwater, air and soil.
--The difficulty in reaching agreements with environmental regulators regarding the level of cleanup necessary to make the environment safe.
--Whether funding levels are sufficient.
--The effect on the environmental of not including in the plan the cleanup of 500,000 tons of depleted uranium, more than 1 million cubic tons of waste and scrap scattered around the plant, and the decontamination and decommissioning of 16 buildings that are no longer needed.
Bunning said the need to clean up the plant is more important than ever because of USEC Inc.'s recent decision to close Paducah’s sister plant in Portsmouth, Ohio, next year.
“Soon the Paducah plant will be our only source of enriched uranium, and it is absolutely crucial that we do all we can to address problems in Paducah to ensure its continued vitality for our nation and our national defense,” Bunning said.
Bunning said he's particularly concerned about GAO's comments that some areas of the plant aren't included in the cleanup.
“I know that DOE has its hands full with its current cleanup plan, but I don’t see how we can seriously talk about fixing the problems at Paducah unless we deal with all of the problems at the site — not just some of them,” Bunning said. “A half-solution is no solution at all.”
Bunning also noted that the GAO investigation suggested that indecision and infighting within DOE and with other government agencies could further hamper cleanup efforts. “Addressing the problems at Paducah is one instance where everyone needs to keep their eye on the ball,” he said. “This is not a time to get sidetracked by bureaucratic turf fights.”
Huntoon said efforts are being made to streamline the cleanup effort and to overcome bureaucratic battles with other agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection. She also said offices within DOE are cooperating.
Huntoon said increased funding this fiscal year and the anticipation of more funding in 2001 is allowing DOE to make significant progress in accelerating the cleanup. “With the continued support of Congress, I believe we can be successful in meeting our shared goal: to ensure the safety of workers and the general public and protect and restore the environment.”
She said progress in reducing the risk to workers and the public include:
--Funding the extension of 12 miles of municipal water lines to over more than 100 residences and businesses whose wells were contaminated.
--Identification of the areas of the groundwater plumes with the highest concentrations of contaminants and the installation of “pump and treat” systems to contain the spread of the plumes.
--Meetings with environmental regulators to identify risks and devise technical solutions to clean up those risks.
Also, she said an August 1999 health and safety investigation identified 77 actions that were needed to reduce immediate health and safety risks. She said 60 percent of those actions have been completed.
The efforts have been helped by a $6 million increase in cleanup funds this year plus DOE's decision to transfer an additional $10 million from other DOE accounts. She said DOE has asked Congress for $78 million in fiscal year 2001, $24 million more than was appropriated this year.
The most noticeable work is the cleanup of “drum mountain,” an area in the scrap yard where more than 80,000 crushed and contaminated drums are being stored. The work is expected to be finished in September.
“Once drum mountain work is complete, we plan to begin removing other scrap metals at the site,” Huntoon said.
Huntoon said construction of the pilot project will begin soon to test methods of treating the southeast groundwater plume, which is suspected of carrying high levels of chemical contamination to areas off the plant site.
“The future costs of many complex environmental management and remediation programs are difficult to quantify with precision, particularly when many projects remain in a planning stage,” she told the Senate committee. She said as planning continues cost estimates and schedules “may significantly increase or decrease.”