By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CROSBY TWP. - U.S. Department of Energy officials in charge of the $4.4 billion cleanup at the cold-war era Fernald uranium processing plant said Monday they will abandon pursuit of the most controversial proposed changes to cleanup standards at the nuclear site.
The department, which spends more than $7 billion annually on nuclear cleanup sites across the nation, has started a program called "Risk-based End-states" that aims to make sure the cleanups are done as quickly and cheaply as possible. The idea is to try to change cleanup standards for things such as groundwater and soil to the bare minimum that would protect public health.
Fernald cleanup standards were arrived at nearly a decade ago, after years of debate and negotiations among citizens near the plant, the state and federal environmental protection agencies and the Department of Energy. The Risk-based End-state report for Fernald will be sent to Washington at the end of the month after the public comment period is over.
Jack Craig, deputy director of the Department of Energy's Ohio Field Office, said there just isn't time to change legally binding agreements that impose cleanup standards. The Fernald cleanup is about 70 percent complete, and a June 2006 deadline is fast approaching.
Craig and other officials involved in the cleanup at Fernald appeared Monday before the Hamilton County Commission to answer questions. The commissioners are expected to sign a resolution Wednesday saying they oppose any changes to cleanup standards.
"Where we are at today, any changes to the cleanup standards - those are off the table and we are no long pursuing those," Craig said.
But Tom Winston, chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's Southwest District Office, said Department of Energy officials in Washington could still try to implement the money-saving program at all sites across the country by an act of Congress.
"What assurances can you give us that there will be no effort to get these changes through the back door on the people of Hamilton County?" Commissioner Todd Portune asked.
"I'm not sure I can give you that assurance," Craig said.
Lisa Crawford, leader of a citizens' group that negotiated many of the cleanup standards and still keeps tabs on the project, said she's still concerned that the Department of Energy's proposal will leave Fernald a dirtier site.
Among the proposals still in the Department of Energy's document: using an overall average of the radioactivity levels to decide what waste can go into an on-site disposal facility, instead of the current rule that caps those levels; and replacing the water treatment plant cleaning uranium from groundwater with a smaller until that would delay that part of the cleanup by three years.
"A couple of big things were taken out of the report, but there's still a lot of stuff in there that could come back and smack us in the face," Crawford said. "We don't want to renegotiate anything."
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