The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

Uranium concerns

Opinions vary on effects on creeks around Paducah plant

By Joe Walker

Sunday, July 23, 2006

A whistle-blower´s concerns about the dangers of uranium contamination at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant have rekindled debate about what is safe.

State regulators are aware of the problem but don´t consider the uranium a threat to workers, neighbors or plant surroundings. Some members of the plant´s citizens advisory board are concerned enough to suggest an independent investigation.

The 54-year-old plant enriches uranium for use in nuclear fuel.

After losing his job as plant landfill manager in April, Gary VanderBoegh has spent the last three months forwarding environmental data to the Department of Energy, the Kentucky congressional delegation, state and federal regulators, advisory board members and others.

He also filed a Department of Labor complaint against DOE and contractor Paducah Remediation Services alleging he wasn´t rehired in retaliation for his speaking out about potential radiation problems at the landfill. VanderBoegh said he received an initial dismissal letter this past week, but said such complaints typically are dismissed at first. He said he will proceed with “the next step’ in the process.

VanderBoegh cites four years of Kentucky Division of Waste Management records showing that water containing uranium regularly flows into a ditch on the west side of the plant from a pond that collects runoff from dirt stirred up during removal of contaminated scrap metal. He said pond overflow worsened recently during heavy rains.

His review of records shows 15 occasions in which the concentration of uranium in the water ranged from 134 to 726 parts per million. A part per million is equivalent to a cup of water in a swimming pool. Uranium contains low-level radiation.

There is no regulatory standard for the runoff, but the uranium levels are from 4,467 to 24,200 times higher than the federal drinking water limit of 30 parts per billion. A part per billion is equivalent to a drop of water in a swimming pool.

The ditch flows into Big Bayou Creek, which runs northerly into the West Kentucky Wildlife Management Area, onto private land and eventually into the Ohio River. DOE previously replaced neighboring private wells with municipal water because of plant contamination, notably from the formerly used degreaser trichloroethylene.

“I wonder how Cairo, Wickliffe, and Memphis will feel about these levels of uranium in the waters heading toward their communities as authorized by DOE?’ VanderBoegh said.

He restated his concerns Thursday night at a meeting of the plant´s citizens advisory board and was asked to put them in writing so the board can seek a written response from DOE. Following a lengthy exchange involving VanderBoegh, board members and regulators, DOE Paducah Site Manager Bill Murphie said the plant waste management program is meeting health-based permits.

“So, to the extent the question was asked, ‘Do you think this is safe? Do you think this is in compliance?´ The answer is yes,’ he said.

Sen. Mitch McConnell and other federal lawmakers have referred VanderBoegh´s concerns to regulatory agencies including the Kentucky Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet. Cabinet spokesman Mark York said state monitoring results from a runoff point near the pond do not indicate high levels of contamination.

“The data do not show a threat to the environment or human health,’ York said.

There were no applicable standards for uranium several years ago when the plant discharge permit was issued by the Kentucky Division of Water, York said. “DOE has applied for renewal of the permit. That is under technical review, and we´re developing water quality-based requirements to be a part of that permit.’

VanderBoegh estimates that nearly 20 pounds of uranium were in Big Bayou Creek water on Jan. 31 during one of the heavier concentrations. York said the state doesn´t measure the volume of discharge because there is no separate monitoring point for the pond.

Advisory board member Jim Smart said there aren´t enough health criteria to understand the implications of the uranium. He teaches at the University of Kentucky Engineering School in Paducah, holds a doctorate in chemical engineering and was an environmental engineer for many years with IBM.

“I´ve looked at a lot of the data, and it´s disturbing and alarming,’ Smart said. “The red flags have gone up, and I think it merits somebody looking into it much deeper than it´s gone. I´d like to get this thing resolved.’

Smart said the board should appoint a task force or hire an independent evaluator to study the issue and make a recommendation.

VanderBoegh also has complained to the board and others about a 25-acre solid waste landfill that he helped develop in the mid-1990s and managed until April. The landfill is near Little Bayou Creek, just north of Ogden Landing Road behind the plant.

In May 2004, DOE began accepting radiologically contaminated waste into the landfill based on perceived low risk to human health. VanderBoegh´s Labor Department complaint said rain infiltrates the landfill cover and contacts the waste, resulting in “radiologically contaminated’ leachate — liquid that percolates through or drains from the waste.

The liquid must be stored in tanks until it is treated or disposed of. State regulations require that the storage be sufficient to handle 15 days of peak production during heavy rain.

State officials inspected the landfill in March when DOE contract workers were preparing to expand it. At that time, VanderBoegh complained that expansion might cause the tanks to overflow.

As a result, DOE evaluated the situation and reported there were times when the 15-day level was exceeded even without expansion, said Tony Hatton, assistant director of the Kentucky Division of Waste Management.

“But in spite of that we´re not aware of any overflowing of any outside leachate or of any uncontrolled leachate release to the environment,’ he said.

DOE has used a combination of storage tanks and leachate treatment to handle the situation, but must improve the storage system to comply with regulations and meet its permit, Hatton said.

“We don´t see any immediate threat to health or the environment posed by this shortfall because DOE has treatment capacity to address those potential issues until such time as any necessary upgrades can be done,’ he said.

Although it is hard to quantify the radioactive substances in the leachate, “I´d say they are relatively low levels, and that leachate must meet limits set by the Division of Water,’ Hatton said.

VanderBoegh and George Johnson, another former Paducah plant waste management worker, have complained more than once to the advisory board in recent months about drums of unauthorized hazardous waste being received at the landfill, and problems with waste certification.

Johnson said at a May 18 board meeting, and during an interview, that he testified before a federal grand jury in 2002 as part of a Department of Justice investigation into past environmental practices at the plant. The probe stemmed from an ongoing lawsuit by whistle-blowers other than VanderBoegh.

Advisory board member John Russell said during the meeting that he was “very concerned’ there may not be sufficient DOE and regulatory oversight over the waste going into the landfill.

Rachel Blumenfeld, chief operating officer for DOE´s Paducah site office, responded that landfill workers are subject to criminal liability for falsely certifying waste. “To the best of my knowledge, those (waste-acceptance criteria) are being complied with,’ she said.

David Williams of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta said he forwarded landfill complaints to EPA lawyers, including those involved in the Justice Department probe.