The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Wednesday, August 07, 2002

DOE agrees with cleanup need
Assistant Secretary Jesse Roberson was in Paducah to visit the plant. She said her focus is to cut out the bureaucracy.

By Joe Walker

The Department of Energy's top environmental official says her agency agrees with state and federal regulators on the need for "substantive" changes to get cleanup work done faster and more efficiently at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

"That's what we're focused on," said Jessie Roberson, assistant secretary for environmental management. "We're not focused on window dressing."

She also said DOE will comply with a new federal law requiring it to award a contract by early next month to build facilities at Paducah and Piketon, Ohio, to convert tons of hazardous uranium hexafluoride (UF6) waste into a safer material that might be used commercially. The $1 billion project, which must start by July 31, 2004, is expected to generate hundreds of construction jobs and 150 permanent jobs in each community.

"I'm familiar with the language, and we will work very hard to try to satisfy congressional direction," Roberson said.

She spoke in an interview Tuesday after touring the plant with Kentucky Natural Resources Secretary James Bickford and Jimmy Palmer, director of Atlanta-based Region 4 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The three have agreed to meet quarterly to review the work and cut bureaucracy out of a process that Bickford and Palmer say has been frustratingly slow since groundwater contamination was discovered in a few residential wells north of the plant 14 years ago. Since then, DOE has provided city water to about 100 homes but has not found a way to clean up a massive area of contaminated groundwater leading to the Ohio River.

Roberson said having decisions made by top managers of all three agencies should improve the situation.

"We need more formality in the decision-making process," she said. "I think there's a tremendous amount of talking, but we have trouble making decisions."

Disagreements between the Energy Department and regulators reached a head in recent months as the state and the EPA refused to sign an agreement allowing Paducah to seek additional federal "accelerated cleanup" money. Bickford repeatedly said the change jeopardized regulatory control over a 1998 agreement with DOE.

The tone changed Friday when Bickford accompanied Gov. Paul Patton and other state leaders to Paducah. Bickford said DOE had revised its approach to address major cleanup areas, and the lack of a formal agreement should not jeopardize Paducah's chances in Congress for $34 million in additional cleanup money.

"I don't know how it affects Paducah's chances for getting that money," Roberson said Tuesday. "I'll be honest with you, I think we've had a lot of focus on money, and we're actually trying to focus on getting some work done."

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said an agreement on a revised cleanup plan would make it easier for him to protect the extra funding in the Senate version of the bill, which earmarks $134 million for Paducah. The House version has only $100 million.

Roberson said she recognizes the "great interest" by local leaders and the Kentucky delegation in getting the additional money. Getting work done more quickly and efficiently will improve chances for additional cleanup funding "whether it's this year or next year," she said.

"There's a great interest for us, too, because it takes money to get work done," she said. "But the main thing is, we want to make sure we're putting money to use. ... If it were nothing more than a money discussion for this year, we could walk away in three months and probably nothing would be different."

Roberson said the parties have agreed on "streamlining" the work by focusing on three key areas of cleanup that should produce more jobs, although she could not say how many. The work involves:

Using buried electrodes to heat the ground, vaporize and vacuum out the gases from a large, subterranean pool of the solvent trichloroethylene (TCE), used for decades to clean machinery in a building in the middle of the plant. CDM Federal Services has a $3.2 million contract for a 130-day test of the new technology starting in January. The pool, which is near the building, is the leading source of groundwater contamination.

Cleaning up contaminated soil from a ditch running north from the plant that was the primary source of plant runoff for many years.

Removing thousands of tons of contaminated scrap metal in several storage yards in the northwest fenced area of the facility.

Bickford said Friday that under the faster plan, DOE would spend $482 million on cleanup, rather than $1.3 billion under the 1998 agreement. Roberson clarified that DOE expected to spent $1 billion for faster cleanup.