State needs to get tough on cleanup
Recent articles in the Courier-Journal of Louisville make it plain that for years state environmental officials treated the U.S. Department of Energy with deference in matters related to contamination at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
The commonwealth adopted an attitude of grin and bear it when imperial federal bureaucrats barred state inspectors from the plant and insisted Kentucky had no real authority to regulate it under state environmental laws.
By contrast, regulators in Ohio and Tennessee showed little reluctance to hold DOE accountable for environmental violations the agency committed at its nuclear facilities in those states.
In 1989 Ohio sued DOE in a successful effort to give state regulators broad access to the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. Six years earlier, Tennessee reached an agreement with the federal agency that allows state inspections of DOE facilities in Oak Ridge.
Each of those states has fined DOE more than $200,000 for environmental violations, the Courier-Journal reported. Kentucky has issued one $5,000 fine against the agency.
It's unfortunate but not surprising that state officials remained relatively passive in dealing with DOE during the 1980s and early 1990s. At that time, little was known about the federal government's use of the Paducah plant as a dumping ground for radioactive materials, and DOE frequently invoked "national security" as a reason to keep its operations under wraps.
In retrospect, the commonwealth should have used the courts to compel DOE to cooperate with state regulators. But Paducah residents are more concerned about what the federal government is doing now to right the wrongs it committed here.
Despite all that is known now about contamination at the plant — billions of gallons of polluted groundwater, tons of radioactive scrap, waste materials that could go "critical," causing an uncontrolled nuclear reaction — state officials still seem reluctant to hold the federal government accountable.
Consider a letter that Gov. Paul Patton and the governors of Ohio and Tennessee wrote to President Clinton in March complaining that DOE was dragging its feet on the construction of facilities to recycle 14 billion pounds of uranium hexafluoride waste at the Paducah, Portsmouth and Oak Ridge plants.
Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist threatened to enforce agreements requiring the agency to handle the material as hazardous waste. But the letter doesn't discuss any enforcement actions Kentucky may take to ensure the federal government lives up to its commitments.
Gov. Patton — like state regulators in the 1980s and 90s — prefers to negotiate with the federal government on environmental issues at the gaseous diffusion plant.
The governor has been to Washington at least four times to press his case with President Clinton, Vice President Gore and members of Congress. And he has hinted — but only hinted — that he will take the Department of Energy to court to ensure that it completes the Paducah cleanup by 2010.
It's understandable that the governor prefers negotiation to confrontation, especially when dealing with a Democratic administration. Unfortunately, negotiation has not yielded significant results for the commonwealth. It's clear that Patton is going to have to publicly pound the table and brandish lawsuits to get the Clinton administration's full attention.
The truth is, Kentucky has allowed itself to be pushed around by the federal government, with the result that much of the cleanup money DOE allocated in the 1990s went to Portsmouth and Oak Ridge — not to Paducah.
State officials established a pattern of passivity on environmental issues at the plant before Gov. Patton took office; however, it's up to Patton to change the state's weak posture. The facts are on the table now, and the federal government must take full responsibility — not just rhetorical responsibility — for polluting the environment and putting the health of plant workers and people who live near the facility at risk.
Gov. Patton's own report on the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant states that "recent (federal) funding levels are alarmingly inadequate to meet the costs of accomplishing the projected cleanup."
The people of Paducah would like to hear the governor express a real sense of alarm about the inadequacy of the cleanup. If Patton did speak out forcefully, it's likely that Vice President Gore, who needs Kentucky to win the presidential election, would persuade his friends at DOE to find the money needed to put the cleanup on track.