The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Saturday, November 22, 2003

Cleanup set to move forward

The slow-motion cleanup of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant should gain momentum now that the state has signed an agreement with the Department of Energy to speed the decontamination process and Congress has allocated $182 million for the next phase of the operation.

Congressional funding for the cleanup was temporarily put in jeopardy by a standoff between state environmental regulators and DOE officials over the details of a cleanup agreement.

Last month the dueling bureaucrats finally resolved their differences and settled on a deal that established a 2019 deadline for DOE to complete the major part of the cleanup.

The agreement cleared the way for the new cleanup funding, which includes money for health monitoring facilities used to screen current and former plant workers.

Sen. Mitch McConnell succeeded in getting $57 million to start construction on a plant that will convert 38,000 cylinders of uranium hexafluoride into a safer form for disposal or reuse.

The long political struggle to get DOE to act on the waste conversion project mirrors the larger battle over the cleanup.

Five years ago, Congress mandated the construction of waste conversion plants at the DOE facilities in Paducah and Portsmouth, Ohio.

The conversion plants are an important part of the environmental cleanup, especially at the Paducah plant. The conversion facilities also are needed to help offset the loss of jobs caused by the downsizing of the uranium enrichment industry.

Given DOE's history of resistance to building the facilities, it's certainly good news for Paducah that construction is set to begin in spring.

The spending bill approved by the House and Senate this week sets aside $121 million for the main cleanup operation.

It's a serious source of frustration for area residents that DOE has spent almost a billion dollars on the cleanup so far without making a major dent in the contamination.

But no one is going to wave a magic wand over the site and make the problem disappear.

Paducah must compete with dozens of other sites for cleanup funds. And it should be noted that the cleanup process is complex and that the federal government rarely moves with great speed and efficiency on environmental projects.

The new agreement is the product of a serious effort by state officials to speed the cleanup and hold DOE officials accountable for meeting deadlines.

Kentucky was the last state to reach an agreement with DOE on the cleanup of nuclear facilities. The deal didn't satisfy all of DOE's critics, but it did create timetables and a framework for holding the agency accountable for completing various cleanup projects, including the removal of 53,000 metric tons of scrap metal.

First District Congressman Ed Whitfield is right "the important thing" is to move ahead with the cleanup work.

Keep in mind that DOE spent a decade and almost $400 million at the Paducah plant without removing a single barrel of waste.

In 2000 the agency finally launched the actual cleanup by removing the notorious "drum mountain." To keep the cleanup moving, the state needed what an environmental official described as a "commitment from DOE on enforceable cleanup projects and dates."

With that commitment in hand, the state can hold DOE's feet to the fire and take legal action, if necessary, to ensure that the federal government meets the deadlines.

Of course, the struggle to obtain cleanup funding from Congress will continue. But at last it appears the cleanup will move forward at a pace that is perceptible and even measurable.