DOE inspires public cynicism
The credibility level of the U.S. Department of Energy fell to near zero last week with the release of maps showing that elevated levels of highly radioactive substances such as plutonium were found in and around the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant over a period from 1988 to 1998.
Plant workers and people who live near the facility have long been skeptical of the federal government's pronouncements on the contamination problem. But that skepticism has hardened into cynicism.
Many area residents now wonder whether DOE is competent enough or honest enough to uncover all the contamination, report it to the public and clean it up.
There's also a great deal of anger and frustration over the agency's apparent unwillingness to compensate residents for damage the plant caused to their property and, possibly, their health.
Judith Roberts, who lives across from a site marked as contaminated on one of the maps, undoubtedly expressed the feelings of many when she spoke up at hearing held by DOE officials at Heath High. "We've lived here since 1993 and no one told us the area was used as a storage site," she said. "There were no radioactive signs posted and when we asked if the ground was safe, we were told it was.
"This has hurt property values. We want to leave, but we can't sell our home. Who would want to buy it after this information has been released?"
For years the federal government concealed or obscured the truth about plant operations.
Workers and people in the community weren't informed that highly radioactive substances produced in nuclear weapons facilities were shipped to the plant.
As early as 1960, federal officials worried about the workers' exposure to highly radioactive neptunium. The workers and the public didn't know about these concerns until an old memo surfaced last year.
The secrecy and the evasion supposedly ended in September 1999, when Energy Secretary Bill Richardson came to Paducah and apologized to workers and vowed that the government would "investigate and get to the bottom" of reports that workers were exposed to dangerous levels of contamination.
But DOE still seems unable to give the public a clear, comprehensive accounting of the contamination in and around the site.
The maps were released in response to a Freedom of Information request from the Courier-Journal of Louisville. DOE officials say the maps don't reveal anything that wasn't reported in previously released documents.
Perhaps not, but it's clear people who live near the plant had no idea that concentrations of plutonium more than 100 times higher than background levels had been found in soil and groundwater samples taken outside the facility.
At best, this represents a stunning communications failure by DOE. At worst, it suggests that either the agency still isn't leveling with the public, or isn't capable of sorting out all the data it has collected.
Like David Fuller, the president of the plant workers' union local, we wonder about DOE's assurances that only very small amounts of plutonium entered the plant during the Cold War.
"They talk about such a small amount was brought here," Fuller told the Courier-Journal. "It seems to be much more of a problem than what we're being told."
Don Seaborg, the DOE site manager in Paducah, tells residents that the contamination off-site isn't an "imminent health hazard."
We accept that DOE's assessment is based on sound science, but it's no wonder residents aren't convinced. The problem is credibility — DOE doesn't have it.
"I'm not sure what to do about helping the department's credibility," Seaborg told residents who attended the Heath meeting.
One suggestion is that agency officials pore over all their documents, maps and test results and give a full report to the public on every noteworthy thing they've discovered.
Another is that they promptly begin a discussion of providing compensation for property owners affected by the contamination.
Secretary Richardson said the federal government must finally accept responsibility for the environmental and health problems it created at nuclear facilities. The people of Paducah are still waiting for proof that accountability is taken seriously at DOE.