The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

Past 2 years of DOE cleanup win praise as improvement

By Joe Walker

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The U.S. Department of Energy is making good strides to clean up the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant since signing a September 2003 agreement to speed things up, state regulators say.

“There´s a lot to be done yet, but a couple of years down the road I believe the state is satisfied with the progress,’ said Tony Hatton, assistant director of the Kentucky Division of Waste Management. “They´ve completed some fairly significant projects.’

Hatton said lead DOE contractor Bechtel Jacobs and its support firms have:

• Cleaned up an old drainage ditch that for decades was a catchall for contaminated runoff to the northern plant boundary. Some former workers say it once was a regular dump site for barrels of toxic, radioactive waste. The $8 million cleanup — removing more than 3,000 tons of contaminated soil — was completed five months ahead of schedule and within budget, DOE said earlier.

• “Dramatically increased’ waste removal, particularly scrap metal shipped to disposal facilities.

• Continued cleaning up several old buildings, notably one called the “feed plant’ that was closed in 1976. It was among the plant´s most dangerous work areas because of traces of highly radioactive plutonium and neptunium.

• Laid groundwork for a $40 million project to extract soil contamination around a plant cleaning building that is the leading cause of billions of gallons of groundwater pollution. Construction will begin next year, and by 2007 workers are expected to begin heating the ground far below the surface and vacuum out vaporized contamination for carbon-filter treatment.

• Begun investigating a plume of contaminated groundwater in the southwestern area of the plant. Two pump-and-treat systems on the northeastern and northwestern plant boundaries remove about 16 million gallons a month, and have cleaned up more than a billion gallons. But the systems only remove the highest concentrations of the contamination, which covers much of the area from the plant to the Ohio River.

• Submitted a plan to investigate several old waste disposal areas about which little is known. The areas will be cleaned up collectively.

• Moved ahead of schedule in characterizing contaminated material storage areas.

The work has continued amid uncertainty about who will succeed Bechtel Jacobs. On Thursday, DOE continued the firm´s contract for another three months, to April 23. There have been repeated extensions since 2003 when DOE announced it would replace Bechtel Jacobs with a smaller contractor to try to be more cost-efficient.

North Wind Paducah Cleanup Co. won a $303 million cleanup contract in January, but several other bidders balked. Their protests were dismissed with DOE´s agreement to rebid the work.

Hatton said the state wants the issue resolved so that regulators can establish rapport with the new lead cleanup contractor. But essentially the same local people do the work regardless of who pays them, so the extensions probably have had little effect on cleanup, he said.

DOE has not explained the extensions, except to say it is “working expeditiously’ toward a contract award. No award date is set.

Hatton said state regulators have been told only that “there are some internal issues that need to be resolved.’

The extensions do breed uncertainty, but workers are accustomed because the delays have been ongoing since September 2003, said Bechtel Jacobs project manager Bob Giroir. “We like the extensions because the longer we stay here the more we´re going to accomplish for this work force.’

He credited the company´s 157 employees and 400 subcontract workers with focusing on getting the work done safely and efficiently. Using “out-of-the-box thinking,’ they saved $15 million over 10 months by using Envirocare of Utah to dispose of scrap metal rather than using government facilities, Giroir said.

The work plans call for getting rid of the remaining nearly 20,000 tons of scrap metal by the end of 2006. “Our impression is we´re going to beat that schedule,’ he said. Disposing of old waste is one of three priorities, Giroir said. The others are to hasten the cleanup of heavily contaminated buildings and start cleaning up the soil area that is the major source of groundwater contamination.

Some take a more skeptical view of the cleanup progress. Environmentalist Mark Donham, former chairman of the plant´s citizens advisory board, questions what will happen to contaminated scrap metal and material in old uranium burial grounds.

“Right now the big plan on a lot of that stuff is to haul it out to Envirocare, yet the people in Utah are growing increasingly concerned about them being a dumping ground for us,’ he said.

Donham said there is gradual progress, as there was under a previous cleanup agreement, but it covers only a “very small percentage’ of the total contamination at the plant. He cited an earlier General Accounting Office report that cast doubt on DOE´s ability to clean up the mess by 2010 even at a cost of $1.3 billion.