The Paducah work would begin with the worst problems, and talks would continue on the remaining elements that are in dispute.
By Bill Bartleman firstname.lastname@example.org
Kentucky Natural Resources Secretary James Bickford said that Jessie Roberson, DOE's top environmental official, has agreed to the new direction for negotiations that will allow DOE to begin on some of the most important cleanup work.
He said that in a meeting last week, DOE agreed to revised plans that would lead to work beginning soon to excavate the contaminated north-south diversion ditch, remove thousands of tons of scrap metal and clean contamination under the C-400 building, which is considered a major source of groundwater contamination.
Once that work is started, he said, plans will be discussed for other cleanup, such as removal of contaminated material in landfills and how to deal with groundwater contamination that is headed for the Ohio River.
Bickford said he will join Roberson on Tuesday in Paducah when she makes her first visit to the plant. "I want her to walk through the trenches and see what we are talking about out there," Bickford said.
Bickford said the lack of a formal agreement on DOE's accelerated plan should not jeopardize the extra money that has been promised for cleanup next year. He said the Senate appropriations bill earmarks $134 million for Paducah, of which $34 million originally had been tied to an agreement on the accelerated plan by the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Bickford said the Senate bill, which the House must also agree to, is a direct appropriation and does not tie the extra money to the agreement. He said he thinks U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a member of the appropriations committee, has the clout to keep the funding in the bill.
"I worked hard to secure an extra $34 million for cleanup at Paducah, but just because the Senate has recommended this increase does not guarantee that the final version of the bill will include the additional funding," McConnell said.
McConnell said an agreement on a revised cleanup plan would make it easier for him to keep the extra funding. "Achieving an agreement supported by all parties will strengthen my hand immensely as I work to sustain the funding in the final Energy and Water Appropriations Bill," he said. "The bottom line is, we all share the same goal: cleaning up this facility as quickly and as safely as possible."
Bickford and Jimmy Palmer, director of Region 4 for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said DOE's proposal for the accelerated cleanup is unacceptable because it reduces the scope of the work, leaves waste at the plant that could jeopardize the safety of workers and the community, and would eliminate most of the oversight by state and federal environmental regulators.
The two officials said that under the accelerated plan, DOE would spend $482 million on cleanup, as opposed to $1.3 billion under the original plan.
"We aren't going to give up the oversight under any circumstances," Bickford said. "But we have agreed to work with them so that they can move forward with some of the work much faster."
Palmer agreed, saying there is no need to continue negotiations if an agreement is tied to giving up oversight.
"It is a very complicated issue," he said. "We have told DOE repeatedly that we would fairly review and consider any proposals for flexibility and innovation while being mindful of the expectations of the public to see that work is done properly and doesn't lead to worse environmental and health-care risks."
DOE spokesman Joe Davis denied that DOE wants the state and EPA to give up any oversight of the cleanup work in Paducah, but only to approve revised plans that would take care of the most serious problems in a more timely manner.
"What we are trying to do is very simple," Davis said. "No. 1, we are trying to identify the greatest risks at these sites; No. 2 is to accelerate cleanup in a timely manner; and No. 3 and just as important is in a cost-effective manner."
Davis disputed claims that DOE wouldn't do as much cleanup work in the accelerated plan as it would in the original 1998 agreement. "We are not trying to get away from our original commitment," he said.
Bickford and Gov. Paul Patton discussed the environmental cleanup Friday during a visit to Paducah; Palmer discussed it in an telephone interview from the EPA's regional headquarters in Atlanta; and Davis in a telephone interview from Washington.
Patton and Bickford complimented the work done by McConnell on cleanup issues related to the Paducah plant. Without his help and cooperation, they said, it is unlikely that Paducah would be getting the money it needs for cleanup.
In recent weeks, McConnell and U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning have expressed concern that the state did not agree to the accelerated plan because it could jeopardize future funding. They pointed out that Kentucky is one of only two states that haven't agreed to accelerated cleanup plans.
Palmer, who has negotiated accelerated cleanup plans at DOE facilities in Tennessee and South Carolina, said the issues are different in Paducah. He said the other two plans were more detailed and comprehensive than the plan for Paducah.
He said DOE has not said why it does not want to follow the original cleanup plans and has not given a timeline for meeting goals. Also lacking are details on how some of the work will be accomplished, Palmer said.
"EPA and the state of Kentucky have been in lock step on the situation at Paducah," Palmer said. "We have every significant environmental issue at Paducah — surface contamination, groundwater contamination, buried waste, and other matters — that present both environmental and public health issues.
"What we have been advocating is for DOE to immediately begin some of the cleanup work they already have agreed to," Palmer said. "We just want them to get on with it."
Palmer said he is concerned that little progress on cleanup has been made in Paducah in the past 15 years. "It is frustrating when you compare funding made available to Paducah during the 1990s with the progress toward environmental cleanup," Palmer said. "You immediately ask the question of why more progress hasn't been made."
DOE in the past has said much of the early expense was related to studying the contamination problems, planning how to correct them and managing the contamination to keep the situation from getting worse.
Bickford also said that top officials from the state, EPA and DOE agreed last week to meet quarterly to assess the progress of work in Paducah and discuss future work.
"It is essential that those of us at the top do the assessment," Bickford said. "One of the problems in the past, I think, has been that the top officials weren't as involved." The top officials who will meet quarterly will be Bickford, Palmer and Roberson.