The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Sunday, February 18, 2001
Paducah, Kentucky

Bush must keep cleanup moving

If a recent news story is any indication, the bean counters in the Bush administration need a quick lesson in the history of federal nuclear facilities such as the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

And while they're reviewing this history, which records the exposure of plant workers to radioactive materials and the government's reckless disposal of many tons of contaminated waste, perhaps they should work on identifying the difference between frivolous and essential government spending.

We think money that is allocated to right a wrong the federal government committed a wrong that damaged the environment and endangered the health of workers who put their trust in the government falls into the latter category.

But a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last week suggests some in the Bush administration have a different view. Administration budget officials have targeted the cleanup program at former nuclear weapons facilities for major cuts, the Journal said.

This news isn't going down well with Congressman Ed Whitfield, who represents the First District, and Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning. We feel certain that, if necessary, they will educate the Bush team on the long political struggle that finally produced federal action on the cleanup of the uranium enrichment plant in Paducah.

In fairness, it should be stressed that the president has not yet released his proposed budget. We don't know whether or not his budget will recommend major reductions in funding for the Department of Energy.

The Wall Street Journal reported that officials in Bush's budget office want to trim $1 billion from DOE's budget, with $400 million coming out of the cleanup program.

According to the Journal, Spencer Abraham, the new energy secretary, opposes the cuts and wants to aggressively push the cleanup.

If a debate is going on within the administration about DOE funding and we're inclined to believe there is, given that the Journal is a highly credible source the president would be wise to listen to his energy secretary, not his budget advisors.

As a former U.S. senator, Abraham probably has gained a basic understanding of DOE's problems, most of which relate to credibility.

The agency lost credibility here in Paducah because, over a period of many years, it failed to adequately protect enrichment plant workers and the environment from the hazardous by-products of the nuclear weapons program.

Then DOE presided over a lackadaisical cleanup effort that went on for 12 years before a single drum of contaminated material was removed from the site.

The agency's credibility problem was aggravated by a combination of extravagant promises and lack of follow-up from Abraham's predecessor, Bill Richardson.

With Whitfield, McConnell, Bunning, community leaders, plant union officials and Gov. Paul Patton all pressing for action, DOE finally got the plant cleanup moving last year.

As Whitfield and eight other congressional representatives noted in a letter sent to Abraham, the cleanup is now in a critical phase. The Bush administration needs to increase funding for the cleanup, not cut it. Otherwise, it may take several decades to repair the damage the federal government did in Paducah and other areas where nuclear weapons facilities were located.

The federal government has a moral responsibility to these communities to deal with the plants' legacy of radioactive contamination. In our view, this is not optional spending it's obligatory.

On a less idealistic level, Kentucky's congressional delegation surely will remind Bush that he carried this state on his way to his razor-thin victory in the Electoral College. If Bush fails to follow through on DOE's commitment to the Paducah cleanup, he will suffer political consequences in western Kentucky.

Administration officials should keep in mind, too, that this state's Democratic governor may decide to pursue a lawsuit to force the federal government to clean up the plant grounds. Gov. Patton threatened to use that option against the Clinton administration.

If Bush and Congress don't produce the needed funds, Patton probably wouldn't hesitate nor should he hesitate to take the feds to court.

Sen. McConnell says he wants to meet with Bush to discuss funding for the Paducah cleanup. We expect that McConnell will help the president avoid a serious misstep on an issue of great importance here and in other areas of the country where the federal government has failed to live up to its obligations as the overseer of the nuclear weapons program.