Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Don't compromise cleanup

Fernald: Groundwater

The idea that the U.S. Department of Energy would even consider unrestricted dumping of uranium-contaminated water from Fernald directly into the Great Miami River is outrageous, even if the cost of cleanup has risen far beyond the original estimates.

Now that it believes cleansing the groundwater at the former uranium enrichment plant could take twice as long as expected - until 2021 or later - DOE is going public with 12 possible alternatives. But the "preferred" option calls for treatment of contaminated groundwater to stop by 2005, then pumped-out water would be dumped directly into the Great Miami River for 19 years. That dubious departure from binding legal agreements signed 10 years ago would free DOE and contractor Fluor Fernald from limits now set at 600 pounds of uranium discharged into the river per year. The plan also calls for dismantling Fernald's advanced water treatment plant.

The new plan shifts the contamination problem from the Fernald site to the river. It cuts cost by substituting river dilution for water treatment.

Ohio EPA and Fernald's 14,000 neighbors are rightly incensed at this proposed change in long-standing cleanup strategy. If DOE tries to dump the agreement and dump much more tainted water into the Great Miami, Lisa Crawford, head of Fernald's Citizen's Advisory Board, warns, "this community will raise 500 barrels of hell, and then we will sue."

U.S. EPA should exercise rigorous oversight to make sure the existing agreements are not sacrificed to cost concerns or political timetables and that no switch to alternatives is made until the effects on the river, fish and public health are fully studied. Dismantling Fernald's water treatment plant before groundwater cleanup is anywhere near done seems such a patently bad idea it must be suspected of being used as a bargaining chip that DOE could give up in any compromise deal.

It's been estimated Fernald groundwater remediation will cost at least $168 million, and that is just one of six major projects in the $4.4 billion cleanup. Congress faces many other sites with similar, costly cleanups. DOE estimates the alternative aquifer cleanup plan for Fernald could save as much as $80 million. The current method of pumping out tainted groundwater, treating it to remove uranium, then reinjecting it back into the aquifer is slow, expensive work. But nobody ever promised weapons plant cleanups would be quick or cheap. Congress should stay the course.

The history of cleaning up the former weapons plant northeast of Cincinnati has been riddled with unexpected setbacks. Even if all the necessary sign-offs could be obtained to change the agreements, critics warn that an alternative plan could hit unexpected complications during cleanup or even afterward. Cleanup of waste pits and silos can never be perfect. The aquifer could be recontaminated. That's one reason the cleanup contractor is obligated to follow up years after cleanup ends to see if the parts per billion uranium count in Fernald groundwater has rebounded. If so, the water treatment plant could still be needed. Proposed alternatives require a full public vetting.

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