DOE should meet all deadlines
Officials at DOE want to remove a requirement to set deadlines for completing each segment of the cleanup, leaving only the 2010 deadline for finishing all the work at the plant site. Regional officials with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Kentucky's Natural Resources Cabinet oppose the change, but DOE is appealing to the head of EPA, Christine Todd Whitman.
On the surface, the DOE request does not appear unreasonable. The agency argues that the intermediate deadlines increase bureaucratic paperwork and draw funding away from the actual cleanup operation.
It makes sense to eliminate paperwork and accelerate the cleanup as much as possible, given that funding for the decontamination of the nation's Cold War nuclear sites is subject to the annual Washington scramble.
In any event, the critical deadline is 2010. If the work is essentially completed by then, few people in the Paducah area are going to complain about DOE missing some early deadlines.
Unfortunately, the DOE cleanup record in Paducah does not inspire confidence in the agency's ability to meet any deadlines.
The numbers tell the story of delay and indecision: During the 1990s the Energy Department spent $400 million at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant without removing a single barrel of hazardous material from the site.
Consider those numbers again: 10 years plus $400 million equals zero.
All of that time and money was spent studying the contamination, categorizing it and keeping it from getting worse, DOE officials explained.
Jimmy Palmer, the EPA's regional director, spoke for environmental regulators and the plant's neighbors when he observed, "It is frustrating when you compare funding made available to Paducah during the 1990s with the progress toward environmental cleanup. You immediately ask the question of why more progress hasn't been made."
Over the past two years DOE and its contractors have finally made some progress in cleaning up the site. But Palmer's question still looms over the long-term DOE cleanup project, which will require a near-herculean effort to complete in less than eight years.
It's quite likely DOE won't be able to eliminate all the serious contamination sources at the plant by 2010.
The most complicated and serious problem involves a plume of contaminated groundwater that is moving from the plant toward the Ohio River. Cleanup specialists will have to employ new technology to deal with this environmental threat.
Against that background, the "milestones" in DOE's cleanup agreement with the state assume greater importance.
The milestones apply pressure on DOE to keep the cleanup moving forward. Without the intermediate deadlines — and the accompanying threat of state litigation to force compliance — it's possible DOE officials could again lapse into foot-dragging and paper-shuffling until the agency finally faces — in 2010 — a real reckoning for its poor performance.
History definitely indicates state and federal environmental regulators must keep constant pressure on DOE to ensure the agency deals with the legacy of contamination at nuclear installations.
Paducah already has endured more than a decade of indifference and inaction. Surely that's long enough to wait for the federal government to meet its environmental obligations here.