The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Friday, April 19, 2002

Reaction skeptical on faster cleanup
The DOE now wants to start with a 'clean slate' at the Paducah plant and do the cleanup work in less time at a much lower cost.

By Joe Walker

Regulators and citizen watchdogs are skeptical of another Department of Energy plan to clean up the Paducah uranium enrichment plant more quickly and cheaply.

In 1999, DOE implemented a new strategy to prioritize waste and clean it up more rapidly. In 2000, DOE estimated a $1.3 billion cost to complete the task by 2010. Regulators and others doubted the plant could be cleaned up that fast, and the General Accounting Office, Congress' auditing arm, put the total cost at $3.5 billion.

DOE now wants to start with a "clean slate" and hasten cleanup by three to four years at a cost of $482 million for seven major components, including groundwater, scrap metal and burial grounds. The Sun obtained a 12-page summary of a draft plan, which would apply potentially less costly "commercial" cleanup standards, "focus on real risk reduction" and limit policy decisions to senior DOE managers in Washington.

DOE officials told members of 1st District U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield's staff Thursday that the $482 million "is not representative" of the overall cleanup budget proposed for Paducah, said Jeff Miles, Whitfield's press secretary. Miles said the officials did not give a total but wanted to expedite the work in cooperation with regulators of the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"Obviously, if the cleanup can be done faster and achieve the same results, then Congressman Whitfield is all for it," Miles said. "If it cannot be done that way, then he's not in favor of it."

DOE officials have not publicly addressed concerns about the plan.

"We continue to work closely with our partners in Kentucky and the EPA on an accelerated cleanup strategy,’’ DOE spokesman Joe Davis said. ‘‘Our goal is to accelerate risk reduction and cleanup. We believe we can do it, but there are still details to be worked out."

DOE managers made the presentation March 21 to state and federal regulators in Lexington. The plan calls for all major cleanup by 2006 and appears to have fewer opportunities to hold the Energy Department accountable for failing to meet deadlines.

"One of the concerns I have is starting with a 'clean slate,'" said James Bickford, state natural resources secretary. "That bothers me a lot. ... The clean slate and acceleration don’t match."

He said the state has not formally responded to the plan.

"We are ... going through all this and trying to figure out what some of this stuff means," Bickford said. "I don’t want to slam-dunk them right now until I fully understand this."

Mark Donham, an environmentalist and chairman of the plant's citizens' advisory board, said the plan "raises a lot of questions, and I haven't had those questions answered, although I've asked for conversations with DOE officials."

DOE previously put a $535 million price tag on removing and disposing of radioactive and hazardous waste buried at the plant. The new plan would stabilize the waste, leave it in place and monitor it at a cost of $9 million through 2006.

Donham said the waste includes uranium that can catch fire if exposed to the air. The plan also assumes that considerable waste would be put into a landfill north of the plant and near some homes.

"That's pretty controversial," Donham said. "I think there are a lot of questions about that, and it certainly hasn't been agreed to by regulators."

The plan cites $72 million for "bio-remediation" of groundwater through 2006. A DOE feasibility study two years ago said the preferred alternative was to completely clean up the groundwater at a cost of nearly $1 billion, Donham said.

He doesn't like the idea of letting DOE senior managers in Washington make final decisions about the cleanup in Paducah. Although the idea of faster, cheaper cleanup is good, Donham said, he is skeptical because, he said, the Bush administration does not have a good environmental record.

"I don't think Don Seaborg (Paducah DOE site manager) did this," he said. "This is something that's coming down on these folks from Washington."

A copy of the 12-page summary was presented at the citizens' advisory board meeting Thursday evening, but little discussion took place. Seaborg mentioned the negotiations with state and federal regulators and told the board he was not currently prepared to offer any answers in the way the board might like.

In February, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced new strategies for cleaning up the nation’s contaminated nuclear sites, including Paducah. Highlights included $800 million more annually to speed the cleanup of sites posing the greatest threat to the environment and the public.

DOE also proposed in its 2003 fiscal budget to cut $20 million in support for Kentucky’s monitoring of soil, air, water and wildlife around the Paducah plant. Bickford wrote Abraham, saying, "There are serious questions about the ability of DOE to meet its legal obligations to the citizens of Kentucky."

Robert Logan, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection, said he understands that the Energy Department has projects all over the country that need money. "But we have only one, and we’re concerned about what’s going to happen in Kentucky."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.