By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CROSBY TWP. - U.S. Department of Energy officials are considering a plan that would allow them to stop treating groundwater contaminated with uranium underneath the former Fernald uranium enrichment plant and, instead, dump it directly into the Great Miami River for more than 19 years, beginning in 2005.
The plan, which would save the federal government about $80 million, would also eliminate the rule that limits to 600 pounds per year the allowable amount of uranium discharged into the river from the site.
Currently, there is a water treatment plant on the Fernald property that treats the tainted groundwater. After being cleaned to drinking water standards, that water is then re-injected into the aquifer so that contaminated groundwater is pushed more quickly toward extraction wells.
But that process is expensive - estimated to cost $168 million before it is finished - and DOE officials recently estimated that the aquifer clean-up will take twice as long as originally thought, possibly lasting until 2021. That led to the new study, which outlines six cheaper alternatives.
Of those alternatives, the DOE's "preferred option" is to tear down the water treatment facility and stop treating the tainted groundwater altogether, according to documents obtained by the Enquirer.
"We realize that some of the alternatives ... are different than what we agreed upon in the past," said Glenn Griffiths, the DOE's acting director at Fernald. "Some of the (discharge) levels in the past were set because we could do it. We have a world-class treatment facility on site. (Those levels) are more conservative than what we now feel we need to consider. The question is: Can we get to the same destination on a different road?"
The DOE's "preferred" road would increase the allowable uranium content in discharges into the river by 1,600 percent per discharge.
But before the new plan could take effect, the DOE would have to seek a change in the legally binding agreement it signed a decade ago that requires the aquifer water to be treated to drinking water standards. That won't be easy, because it appears such an effort would be fought - both by the 14,000 residents who live near the plant and are represented by the Fernald Citizen's Advisory Board, and by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
"Hell no," Lisa Crawford, leader of the Fernald citizen's board, said when asked for her reaction to the proposal. "We're not gonna go there. And if they try to take us there, this community will raise 500 barrels of hell, and then we will sue."
Graham Mitchell, chief of OEPA's Office of Federal Facilities Oversight, said the state's top environmental agency also is against the proposal as it stands. Mitchell pointed out that there is major risk involved with the plan: Namely, there could be additional contamination discovered after the treatment plant is torn down in 2005, thus leaving the DOE incapable of dealing with it.
"It's just not consistent with the overall clean-up strategy developed at Fernald over the past 10 years," Mitchell said. "When we get to the end - and we're nowhere near that - there are a whole bunch of steps that need to occur, and they probably need to occur with a treatment system in place."
"Throwing these major changes in, at this point, does not seem productive."
The DOE's handling of this proposal has upset some. The report outlining the alternatives was produced June 30, but it still has not been shared with the public. A presentation for citizens and regulators is scheduled for Oct. 24.
"Any other time, we would have been handed a draft of the document and been asked our opinion," Crawford said. "They've been sitting on this since June."
Tom Schneider, a Fernald supervisor for the OEPA, agreed.
"The handling of this is completely inconsistent with the successes we've had at Fernald," Schneider said. "Those (successes) have been open processes. In this case, it's something DOE has done behind closed doors. We're getting it at the same time they're going public with it, and they're asking us to buy into it. It's sort of baffling.
"And the issue falls apart before any significant technical discussion even takes place. If you have a treatment technique that's demonstrated to work, you don't just shut that off and decide one day that you don't need to do treatment anymore and start dumping in the river."
Griffiths said the process in deciding how best to treat the aquifer will be a public one. He said the process is just beginning.
"All we're saying is let's talk about it," Griffiths said. "And if those conversations lead us to a point where it doesn't make sense, we won't do it. It's a matter of perspective. We've concluded there could be significant cost savings, and we can still be protective to the environment, so we need to investigate the options.
"We're going to lay (the alternatives) out and say here are, from our perspective, the pros and cons of each and the public debate will take place at that point."
The aquifer cleanup is just one of six major projects on the $4.4 billion, taxpayer-funded Fernald cleanup.
Others include tearing down buildings that were used in extraction of uranium from metal; removing the soil underneath; cleaning waste pits that were used to store radioactive waste; emptying three 50-year-old concrete silos that are housing radioactive waste from the first nuclear experiments; and building a disposal facility that will house low-level waste in perpetuity.
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