October 3, 1996 -- Governor Bob Miller's Letter To
DOE Secretary Alvin L. Alm

Capitol Complex
Carson City, Nevada 89710
(702) 687-4486
Fax: (702) 687-4486
October 3, 1996
    Mr. Alvin L. Alm
    Assistant Secretary for Environmental management
    U.S. Department of Energy
    Washington D.C. 20585
    Dear Secretary Alm:
    I would like to thank you for coming to Nevada last month to discuss the Ten-Year Plan initiative with State and local officials and affected stakeholders. I would also like to acknowledge your meeting with State regulatory and policy representatives concerning Department of Energy (DOE) Environmental Management activities at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). As a follow-up to those meetings, I would like to emphasize several concerns about the Ten-Year Plan for the NTS and its potential impact on preexisting State/DOE cleanup agreements, as well as concerns on both complex-wide and site-specific National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) issues. In addition, I believe it necessary to provide further clarification about the State's concerns over DOE waste management activities conducted at the NTS.

    The Ten-Year Plan for DOE's weapons complex is guided by several principles such as the elimination of most urgent risks, protection of worker health and safety, and the reduction of mortgage and support costs. I also understand that implementation of this plan is intended to drive annual budget decisions to support various environmental cleanup and waste management programs throughout the weapons complex.

    I concur with the concept of developing a ten-year vision to address the technical, fiscal, and political difficulties associated with the cleanup of radioactive contamination at DOE facilities across the country. However, you must be aware that radioactive contamination at the NTS is unique in comparison to all other DOE sites. More than 900 nuclear tests were conducted at NTS, and of these, over 200 tests were conducted at or within the vicinity of the groundwater. Underground testing alone left more than 300 million curies of radioactive contamination spread through millions of cubic meters of environmental media. No other site in the DOE complex contains a comparable volume of contamination, and no other site is faced with the mounting uncertainties concerning how this contamination can be effectively characterized, monitored, and contained.

    Given the unique contamination issues at NTS, implementing the proposed ten-year cleanup plan for the site is premature and may in fact increase Nevada's mortgage while hampering, if not forgoing, an orderly long-term site investigation, monitoring, and corrective action program at the site. Understanding the magnitude of this contamination and its impact on future generations and future uses of the site including effects on local and regional groundwater resources is a responsibility that we in Nevada cannot and will not ignore. By significantly limiting the groundwater monitoring program, there is the potential for the radionuclide contamination to migrate and impact in excess of a 1000 square miles of groundwater resources, rather than containing this contamination to approximately 300 square miles presently estimated to be impacted. This would greatly increase Nevada's mortgage. Yet the Ten-Year Plan sends a clear message that this is the intent of DOE through the implementation of a proposed ten-year "flat-line" cleanup budget for the NTS. Moreover, implementing such a budget plan will also impede economic development initiatives supported by my office and Nevada's congressional delegation that are aimed at recovering thousands of jobs lost to the declining defense mission at NTS.

    In addition, and complicating this approach is the apparent prospect that NTS will receive thousands of cubic feet of "off-site" generated low-level and mixed waste from other DOE cleanup activities conducted throughout the country. These wastes are slated for disposal in shallow landfills and bomb craters and would be transported to NTS for years to come. Clearly, these actions do little to reduce the long-term mortgage in Nevada; in fact, it could be argued that such activities will increase our long-term mortgage, which only serves to emphasize the inherent conflict between the ten-year vision and its relevance to a site like the NTS.

    Last year I wrote to your predecessor, Thomas Grumbly, and expressed similar concerns about the Department's policies and budget priorities for the NTS. In my letter to Secretary Grumbly, I said that DOE officials must begin to treat the NTS as they do other DOE facilities, and that, while Nevadans sympathize with contamination problems at other DOE sites, the NTS should not be the recommended solution for those problems until there is a more detailed understanding of existing site contamination caused by nuclear testing in Nevada. More specifically, I said that "downplaying environmental and regulatory compliance, while supporting waste management to facilitate disposal of offsite generated waste, at the expense of onsite environment investigation and monitoring, is not an approach we in Nevada can support." Nevertheless, the ten-year budget plan for the NTS sends the message that the site is expendable and only useful for the disposal of radioactive wastes generated at other DOE sites.

    If the plan is implemented at the NTS, it will seriously jeopardize our ability to understand the nature of groundwater, surface, and subsurface soil contamination at the site. Leaving these issues unaddressed will foreclose future uses of the site and intensify long-term risks to public health and the environment. Implementing such a plan in Nevada is also dubious given DOE's failure to demonstrate that it has the authority, capability, or plans in place to maintain institutional control over NTS and adjoining contaminated public lands in the region. The current Draft Ten-Year Plan for the site calls for abandoning already agreed to groundwater characterization and other corrective action plans in such areas as Frenchman Flat and Rainier Mesa, and it calls for a diminished long-term groundwater investigation program that could result in the Department's inability to clarify and quantify risks of not only presently impacted on-site but also off-site groundwater contamination.

    Fortunately, opportunities do exist to insure that both future uses of the site and protection of public health and the environment can be addressed at NTS. Realizing these opportunities will require the continued investigation of groundwater, industrial, and surface soils contamination, an activity now being conducted by DOE under a regulatory agreement with the State of Nevada. Likewise, to identify cleanup standards for managing infrastructure and biological resources using concepts of sustainable development, DOE must implement a Resource Management Plan at NTS.

    These actions must not be needlessly constrained by inappropriate funding plans. More importantly, because environmental monitoring and resource management activities at NTS comprise less than 1 percent of DOE's national environmental management budget, the Department can easily afford an elastic funding policy that is responsive to an evolving site investigation and resource management program that is uniquely characteristic to the NTS.

    While I believe the State of Nevada and DOE can agree to an orderly program to address contamination at the NTS, the same may not be true for expanded waste disposal activities. The envisioned Ten-Year Plan assumes that "the NTS will be designated a regional facility for low- level and mixed low-level waste disposal." Similarly, the Ten-Year Plan for DOE's Oak Ridge site makes the conclusion "mixed low-level waste that does not meet the acceptance criteria for private sector disposal facilities will be shipped to the NTS for disposal." These assumptions are, at the very least, premature. Any decision to make the NTS a low-level disposal facility is subject to NEPA decisions at the programmatic and site-specific levels (as per 10 CFR 1021), which means that implementing the Ten-Year Plan for the NTS could preempt an ongoing statutorily required federal decision-making process. This situation has been further exacerbated by DOE officials in Nevada who publicly promote the idea that the NTS should become the largest low-level waste disposal facility in the world.

    A federal decision to expand the use of NTS for waste disposal must be authorized by the Secretary of Interior since the lands encompassing NTS are, in fact, public lands that were withdrawn by the Department of Interior for atomic testing activities only. Also, resolution of waste disposal from off-site generators at the NTS is the subject of continuing litigation between the State of Nevada and DOE.

    Finally, pending resolutions of these issues, and in accordance with the recent DOE initiative regarding external oversight, I would strongly suggest the Department reevaluate its current waste disposal program at NTS to address shared federal/state regulatory oversight of waste disposal operations. Likewise, DOE must address certain "equity" issues concerning the use of generator fees for disposal activities. If DOE is granted continued use of the NTS to support waste management for the defense complex -- over the State's objections -- then such activities must be fully funded by off-site generators to support life-cycle costs for all program operations including performance assessments, regulatory oversight, long-term postclosure monitoring, and potentially necessary mitigation measures.

    I hope that you seriously consider these comments and concerns outlined in this letter and make the appropriate changes to the proposed NTS Ten-Year Plan. Bob Miller GOVERNOR Copies of this letter were sent to the following individuals:

    Bob Miller
    cc: Nevada Congressional Delegation
    Robert R. Loux, NWPO
    Lew Dodgion, Environmental Protection
    Diana Weigmann, State Science Advisor
    Leo Penne, Nevada, Washington Office
    Terry Vaeth, Joseph Fiore, Don Elle, Leah Dever,DOE/NV
    Ann Morgan, BLM/NV
    John Thomasian, NGA
    Members CAB, NTS Programs

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