The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Saturday, September 09, 2000
Paducah, Kentucky

Justice: no buried poison
Dig ends; mountain of drums all but gone

By Bill Bartleman
BARKLEY THIELEMAN/The Sun--Nearly done: As a clamshell grappler picks up crushed drums from the remaining part of ‘drum mountain’ Friday, the crusher (left) fills a scrap container with the processed drums.

U.S. Department of Justice officials say they find no evidence of illegally buried drums of contaminated water in or near a closed landfill at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

The search for contaminated drums was conducted in response to wide-ranging allegations in a federal whistle-blower lawsuit that past plant operators falsified records and disposed of contaminated waste improperly in order to earn millions of dollars in operating bonuses. One former worker told investigators that contaminated drums were buried in the landfill, which was designated for nonhazardous waste.

In an unrelated matter, the task of removing 85,000 rusted drums from a scrap pile known as "drum mountain" should be completed early next week, according to Greg Cook, spokesman for Bechtel Jacobs Co., which has the contract to remove the drums.

The shredded drums have been placed in more than 130 containers that, beginning Oct. 1, will be shipped to a hazardous waste landfill in Utah.

The removal of drum mountain is the first visible sign of the U.S. Department of Energy's effort to clean up the almost 50-year-old uranium enrichment plant.

The drums were once used to store hazardous, mildly radioactive uranium tetrafluoride, or UF4. The barrels were crushed and moved to the scrap yard after the plant stopped the manufacturing process that produced UF4, also known as "green salt." Water runoff from the drums is suspected to be the cause of groundwater contamination.

Removal of the drums is costing DOE about $7 million.

The Department of Justice investigation into claims of falsified records is to determine if there is evidence to prove the allegations of misdeeds by the former contractor, Lockheed Martin, and its predecessors. If there is evidence, the federal government would become a party in a lawsuit that is seeking to recover millions of dollars from the former operator.

Justice officials have until Nov. 1 to decide whether to join the suit. Hancy Jones, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Louisville, said investigators are continuing to review thousands of pages of documents. "The investigation is a long way from being over," Jones said.

The investigation involves reviewing plant records, interviewing current and former workers, and digging at locations on the plant grounds identified in allegations as sites of illegal dumping. Some digging was done last year, but was halted when investigators weren't finding evidence of any problems.

The digging resumed last month in new areas where there had been claims of illegal dumping.

"We have finished with that dig, and I can confirm that we found a railroad tie and some fence posts," said Jones said. "If we have new allegations, we will consider looking into those."