The Paducah cleanup was expected to be hastened when DOE named a separate overseer, but critics say DOE is still slowing the work.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
The department missed a July 15 deadline to approve starting preliminary design of a project to convert into safer material about 54,000 spent uranium hexafluoride (UF6) cylinders at Paducah and its closed sister plant in Piketon, Ohio. Each passing day lessens the time that contractor Uranium Disposition Services has to meet a congressional milestone of starting groundbreaking a year from now.
"We haven't gotten an explanation for the delay, just that it's at DOE headquarters in Washington," said Dick Veazey, UDS project manager. "I think there is some uncertainty on their part as to what approval level it would take to do that. Our only concern is that if we don't get started soon, it could result in a slip in schedule."
In early 2002, DOE named Bill Murphie to oversee plant cleanup at Paducah and Piketon amid attempts to reach an agreement with state and federal environmental regulators to hasten the process. Last week, Congress chastised all those involved for lack of cooperation, and DOE faces a potential $26 million cut in cleanup spending at Paducah because of it.
When Murphie took the job, the Kentucky congressional delegation added pressure on DOE to eliminate a huge layer of bureaucracy by removing the plants from control of its sprawling Oak Ridge, Tenn., operations office. The idea was to give Murphie direct accountability to DOE headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The Energy Department finally formalized the plan two months ago by establishing a Lexington office between Paducah and Piketon and nearer state regulators in Frankfort. Ken Wheeler, chairman of the Greater Paducah Economic Development Council, said his organization is disappointed in the results since Murphie was appointed. Wheeler said he is impressed with Murphie and his efforts but concerned that the huge DOE bureaucracy hasn't changed.
"What irks me is, the community was certainly led to believe the new office would help accelerate the cleanup activities," he said. "Frankly, so far, we've seen no evidence of that."
Attempts to reach Murphie on Thursday were unsuccessful. DOE spokeswoman Dolline Hatchett said she could not respond because the appropriate department officials were unavailable.
Congress mandated the conversion project in 1998, but the Office of Management and Budget argued that only one plant was needed, and some DOE officials claimed the law did not require construction of even one plant. After four years of delays, Congress passed strongly worded language last summer giving DOE about a month to award a contract.
The new legislation requires construction to start by July 31, 2004, six months after the date set in the original law. It also requires DOE to seek adequate annual funding to ensure completion of the project, estimated at $1 billion to build two plants and run them about 20 years.
Each plant is expected to create hundreds of construction jobs and about 150 long-term jobs converting billions of pounds of hazardous, corrosive material. There are about 38,000 cylinders at Paducah and about 16,000 at Piketon.
DOE requested $45 million for the Paducah conversion plant in fiscal year 2004, which starts Oct. 1. A House bill met that request, and a Senate bill added $10 million. The difference will be worked out by the conference committee.