Monday, March 1, 2004

Fernald cleanup changes sought

Rules may be relaxed to get job done faster

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

CROSBY TWP - Fernald officials are expected today to meet with Hamilton County commissioners to discuss relaxing nuclear cleanup standards at the former uranium processing plant.

Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Energy has been re-evaluating standards at nuclear cleanup facilities in an effort to get the projects done more quickly and cheaply.

Fernald was a Cold War-era plant that produced uranium for enrichment and use in nuclear weapons. A $4.4 billion cleanup of the site is scheduled to be complete in 2006.

The Energy Department re-evaluation would base cleanup standards on minimum requirements to protect public health. That approach would clash with higher standards for cleaning up Fernald that a citizens group and state and federal environmental agencies fought to set more than a decade ago. "This is all about money. They are looking at every way possible they can get out of doing what they promised, and what we expect done," said Lisa Crawford, who heads Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health. "I'm the first person to want to save taxpayer money, but we are not going to accept a shoddier cleanup."

Crawford and others say the Fernald project has legally binding agreements in place that set limits on how much radioactive waste will stay at the site and how much uranium will be allowed in groundwater and soil. They now question whether the Energy Department is trying to change those agreements.

"At this stage of the game, (changing the clean-up agreements) is something not likely to happen," said Gary Stegner, spokesman for the Department of Energy. "The reality of the situation is, with us shooting for a 2006 completion, it would be extremely difficult" to change the standards.

Still, a written proposal that will be sent by local Department of Energy managers to Washington, D.C., proposes a handful of ideas that could do just that.

The proposal, which Fernald officials will discuss with commissioners, proposes:

• Using an overall average of radioactivity levels to decide what waste can go into the on-site disposal facility, instead of the current rule that caps the level of radioactivity for individual pieces of waste. This would mean more items with higher radioactivity levels would stay at Fernald than originally planned.

• Replacing the on-site treatment plant that cleans uranium-tainted groundwater with a smaller, portable facility within a year. This would extend the groundwater cleanup by three years.

• Leaving behind pipes that carry tainted water to the Great Miami River, rather than removing them.

Citizens can tell the Energy Department what they think of the proposals until March 15. Then the report will be sent to Washington, where senior officials will decide whether to pursue any of the proposals.

Tom Schneider, site coordinator at Fernald for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said he is concerned that the Energy Department is trying to push through a cheaper cleanup.

"All we can do is react to what they're putting in writing. So no, I don't have a high level of confidence that DOE won't pursue this," Schneider said. "If they know that nobody finds a lesser cleanup unacceptable, I'm not sure why they put it in writing."

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune said today's meeting, which is open to the public, is important for a number of reasons.

"We need to keep the pressure on them to make sure these suggestions don't become the standard," Portune said. "It's important for us to formalize our objections to their report and give citizens the opportunity to voice their concerns."

The Fernald site has been besieged with problems during the past year, including two critical nuclear safety reports, several near-miss accidents that could have resulted in worker deaths, and the shutting down of two major projects because of repeated safety problems.

The cleanup contractor, Fluor Fernald, is shooting for a June 2006 completion. The California-based company will earn hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives if they meet that deadline. Additional incentives include $8 million for every month the project is completed before June 2006. The company is penalized an equal monthly amount if they miss their deadline.



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