October 29, 1998 -- Governor Bob Miller's Letter to
DOE Acting DOE Secretary James Owendoff (EM1)

Capitol Complex
Carson City, Nevada 89710
(702) 687-4486
Fax: (702) 687-4486
October 29, 1998
    James M. Owendoff
    Acting Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management
    U.S. Department of Energy
    Washington D.C. 20585
    Dear Mr. Owendoff:

    In October 1996 I sent a letter to former Assistant Secretary Alvin Alm expressing my concerns about groundwater contamination at the Nevada Test Site (NTS). In that correspondence I noted that we must address the magnitude of groundwater contamination at NTS and its impact on future generations. As you know, groundwater contamination beneath the site is unique in comparison to all other Department of Energy (DOE) facilities. Underground nuclear testing at NTS left an estimated source term of 300 million curies of radioactivity in the environmental media. More importantly, because nearly 40 percent of these tests were conducted below or within 75 meters of the water table, the groundwater beneath the site now contains an estimated 120 million curies of radioactive contamination.

    Groundwater contamination at the site is being addressed through a State/Federal regulatory scheme defined under a Federal Facilities Agreement and Consent Order (FFACO). This agreement contains a detailed process or "Corrective Action Strategy" to address the groundwater contamination caused by underground nuclear testing. While the current strategy indicates that deep subsurface contamination around each nuclear test cavity will not be remediated (pending development of cost-effective remediation technologies), DOE has nevertheless agreed to a subsurface groundwater characterization program. The characterization program is needed to address uncertainties about the size and movement of groundwater contamination to determine appropriate containment control and/or monitoring requirements. State officials have estimated that 300 square miles of contaminated groundwater may exist beneath the NTS and there is a real potential for this contamination to move offsite -- potently affecting regional aquifer systems in the Beatty, Amargosa and Death Valley regions.

    Mr. Owendoff, the intent of this letter is to express my deep concern about DOE's continued support for maintaining an active investigation of the NTS Underground Test Areas (UGTA) Corrective Action Unit program, as defined under the FFACO agreement. You may recall that in 1997 the State of Nevada, Division of Environmental Protection, indicated that an annual increase of $15 to 20 million would be needed to accomplish an acceptable groundwater characterization program at the NTS. This need has not gone away, or changed, so I strongly encouraged you to ensure these funds are included in DOE's budget to support the fiscal year 1999 UGTA program at the NTS.

    I have indicated in the past that DOE must increase the base level of funding for NTS cleanup activities commensurate with remediation strategies negotiated in good faith through the FFACO process. This is important since funding for DOE's cleanup program at NTS remains historically low (i.e., two percent of the national program). Without question, support for site investigation and remediation activities at NTS remains out of balance with the level of contamination and associated long-term risks at the site. As Nevada continues to find future roles for this important national resource in the private sector, the data provided by this monitoring process becomes very important. Although there are legitimate historical reasons that explain these funding shortfalls, such as timing and uncertainties (e.g., nuclear testing was not halted until 1992 - some four years after the beginning of DOE's EM program), DOE must nevertheless meet its short term funding commitments stipulated through the FFACO process.

    Again, I encourage you to carefully consider the level of funding needed to support the fiscal year 1999 UGTA program at the NTS.

    Bob Miller

cc: Allen Biaggi, NDEP
      Robert R. Loux, NWPO
      Bill Frey, AG's Office
      Leo Penne, Washington Office
      G. Johnson DOE/NV
      Ann Beauchesne, NGA