Saturday, May 1, 2004

Fernald cleanup slows down

Warning promised if silo waste moved

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

CROSBY TOWNSHIP - The U.S. Department of Energy, in a letter written Friday to the Nevada Attorney General's Office, said none of the 153 million pounds of nuclear waste from the Fernald silos will be shipped to that state without at least a 45-day notice.

Two weeks ago, the Nevada Attorney General's Office threatened to sue the Department of Energy if Fernald waste was shipped for permanent disposal at the Nevada Test Site, a low-level nuclear-waste repository 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Nevada claims it is illegal, unsafe and a violation of the Department of Energy's own rules governing storage of nuclear waste to dispose of the silo material in the Nevada Test Site.

"The department is evaluating the points raised in your letter, and at this time we are unable to state how long that process will take," said the DOE's letter, signed by Marc Johnston, deputy general counsel for litigation.

"Accordingly, I have been authorized to represent that the Department will not ship any of the material stored in the Fernald silos to the Nevada Test Site without first providing to you 45 days advance notice."

Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval said Friday that the letter is a victory for the people of his state, adding that a 45-day notice would give him sufficient time to file a lawsuit asking for an injunction to stop the shipments before they could begin.

Senior Deputy Attorney General Marta Adams, who would handle any lawsuit filed against the DOE, said such a suit could be filed within a day.

"We feel the violations are pretty significant and pretty clear, and that's why we are so confident," Adams said. "You don't take that kind of waste and put it in a glorified hole in the ground in glorified bags."

But Department of Energy spokesman Joe Davis said the letter doesn't really change anything. He said the DOE is still convinced it can legally ship the waste to Nevada on schedule. Shipments are to begin in early June.

"It is our intention to keep the schedule," Davis said. "We don't think that has been jeopardized by trying to be responsive to the state of Nevada.

Davis wouldn't respond directly when asked if that means the waste will be removed from the concrete silos that have safely stored it for 50 years, even if there is no clear final destination for it. But he did say: "I don't think we have any unresolved issues."

That's news to the Nevada officials.

Sandoval wrote in a letter dated April 13 that storing silos waste at the Nevada Test Site violates federal and state law. "DOE's plan is reckless and unsafe, and flagrantly violates the law," Sandoval's letter said.

Any delay is likely to make it impossible for the DOE and its prime contractor at the site, Fluor Fernald, to make the June 2006 deadline to complete the cleanup. Fluor Fernald, which is handling most of the $4.4 billion cleanup, has a $250 million bonus riding on meeting that deadline.

Jeff Wagner, a spokesman for Fluor Fernald, said it is unclear if it could remove waste from the silos and store it in a temporary facility at Fernald.

The DOE might want to begin removing the silo waste so that it is ready to be shipped as soon as a final destination is found. Government officials originally wanted to ship the waste to a private landfill in Utah, but public outcry over that idea caused landfill owners there to abandon the plan.

If it can't ship Fernald waste to Nevada, the Department of Energy has no place else to turn.

Removal of the waste from the silos into a temporary storage facility at Fernald is a frightening possibility to Lisa Crawford, leader of a citizens group that sued to get the cleanup started and has monitored it for the past decade.

"It leaves us in a real mess," Crawford said. "We have nowhere to send it. And it's our opinion that, at this point, they can pull nothing out of those silos until they have a clear path forward."

Crawford's group, Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH), have thrown up another potential roadblock for the silo cleanup. In a letter to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the group said neither the DOE nor Fluor plan to perform the proper safety reviews before starting the dangerous process of removing the waste from the silos.

Crawford believes the safety reviews are being cut short to save time so the 2006 deadline can be met.

Dave Kozlowski, the DOE's deputy director at Fernald, said that's not true.


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