The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Bureaucrats still defy cleanup law

Since Congress passed legislation mandating the construction of uranium waste conversion plants in Paducah and Portsmouth, Ohio, the White House has changed hands, the country has been involved in two wars and the oldest man on Capitol Hill, U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, has celebrated his 96th, 97th, 98th and 99th birthdays.

Thurmond will turn 100 and retire from Congress by the time the U.S. Department of Energy gets around to completing the latest in a series of reviews of the conversion projects.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell was the main sponsor of the bill mandating the conversion plants. The bill was approved by Congress in the summer of 1998.

A hope is that Sen. McConnell will see the plants completed before he reaches Thurmond's age.

Last month DOE announced that it will ask the three finalists in the bidding for the projects to resubmit bids based on the cost of building one plant instead of two. The last-minute change in the bidding procedure will delay a decision on construction by at least another year.

Leon Owens, the president of the union local that represents most of the workers at the USEC Inc. plant in Paducah, said the "foot-dragging on this major cleanup project is simply inexcusable."

In our view, the term "foot-dragging" exaggerates the helpfulness of the federal executive branch in handling this portion of the cleanup of the gaseous diffusion plants in Paducah and Portsmouth.

The evidence suggests that bureaucrats in DOE and/or the White House Office of Management and Budget, which reportedly objected to building two cleanup facilities, simply are unwilling to carry out the congressional mandate.

The legislation requires construction to begin on the two facilities by Jan. 31, 2004. With less than two years to go until that deadline, unelected bureaucrats have decided to substitute their interpretation of the law for the clear congressional intent.

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, who helped to shepherd the bill through the House of Representatives, says it explicitly requires two plants to convert depleted uranium hexaflouride into safer material for disposal or reuse.

Apparently, however, it doesn't matter what the authors of the legislation intended the plants' future is in the hands of the bean counters at OMB and the DOE bureaucrats who frittered away a decade before removing any contaminated material from the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

Owens suggested the state should go to court to force the federal government to clean up the 40,000 cylinders of uranium hexafluoride stored at the Paducah plant site.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist threatened legal action against DOE in a letter the two governors and Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton sent to then-President Clinton in 2000. The states could decide to regulate the UF6 as hazardous waste; that would present the federal government with the choice of removing or recycling the material or paying fines.

State officials are justified in pursuing legal action against the federal government for its failure to follow through on the cleanup plan.

We would also like to see President George W. Bush give these projects a boost. It's difficult even for a president to motivate entrenched mid-level federal bureaucrats, but the fact is, the heads of OMB and DOE answer to Bush.

These cleanup facilities represent justified federal spending to eliminate a problem caused by the federal government itself.

The OMB's green eyeshade approach, weighing the value of one plant against the other, ignores the federal government's responsibility for cleaning up the mess. And, to put it bluntly, it won't help the president politically in two states he carried on his way to a razor-thin Electoral College victory in 2000.

On the UF6 issue, the federal government is in the process of turning years of indifference and neglect into outright defiance of a cleanup law approved by Congress. The latest delay may well move the matter beyond the bureaucracy and into the courts.