filing for dismissal on case against DOE and Kentucky - a sad circle to what is happening today

I want to write some recollections from back during the Bush administration. I'm not sure of the year without researching it, but it was while I was a member/chair of the US Dept. of Energy's Paducah Site Specific Advisory Board, or SSAB. The SSAB was supposedly a committee of citizens from a wide variety of interests and professions that operated under the rules of the Federal Advisory Committee Act in order to give recommendations to the DOE on the cleanup of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant - a government owned uranium enrichment facility that has been operating since 1952.

The place is very contaminated. There are innumerable locations of dumps, spills, and leaks of a variety of environmental contaminants. There are still a lot of not very nice things laying around, not the least (but probably not the most) of which is 1/3 of all the uranium mined on earth in form of "depleted" uranium. There are old landfills, at least one of which you can't find out what is there because it is "classified." However, we do know that there are parts of old nuclear bombs in there. (not the warheads, we hope). There are millions of pounds of "pyrophoric" uranium (or uranium that can spontaneously catch on fire if it comes in contact with air or water) that are buried in toxic oil in shallow trenches that easily fill with water, and millions of pounds of nickel that is "volumentrically" contaminated with a variety of transuranics and fission products. (volumetrically means it is part of the metal and not just on the surface - i.e., you can't just wash it off). The groundwater is highly contaminated in a large area on and off the plant site. Streams that leave the facility are contaminated. There are contaminated buildings that need to be contained.

There is much more. In fact, over 2 billion dollars have been spent there on cleanup and most of the above has not been addressed. The problems at the facility are well documented in a number of General Accounting Office reports as well other governmental and non-governmental documents. (As an aside, this is why I have been surprised that Economic Development Director Chancellor complained that he didn't know enough about the problems at the plant).

When I served on the SSAB, we were told by DOE personnel at a retreat that the only recommendations that would be given consideration were those that passed by consensus by the board. Fair enough I thought. But, even though the board those first 8 years was truly diverse and represented a wide variety of interests in the community - in some cases almost polar interests - we were able to come to consensus from time to time.

The most substantive issue that we repeatedly passed by consensus over the 8 years I was on the SSAB was that DOE should focus it's cleanup efforts on the sources of the groundwater pollution. And while we never could get DOE to seriously focus in on that concept, a cleanup plan was grinding forward.

Then George W. Bush became president. He instituted a "top-to-bottom" review of the DOE and all these cleanup plans at all of the old governmental major nuclear processing sites such as Oak Ridge, Hanford, Savannah River, Idaho National Lab, and numerous others. I don't fault him for that. Billions of dollars were being poured into these cleanups and as in Paducah, big problems were not being solved well.

Threatening to cutoff federal funding to state governments, the DOE strong-armed states into agreeing to modify cleanup plans. The new approach was to be "risk" based and not "human health" based. This was a way to try and justify cutting funding. For example, at Paducah, since most if not all of the private residents that had their wells contaminated were not still using them and were getting free treated water, the risk from the groundwater had been significantly reduced, therefore the priority for dealing with it was also lowered.

And while I give the state of Kentucky waste management people some credit in being the last state to cave under DOE's pressure, eventually they agreed to a series of meetings in Lexington, KY to come to a meeting of the minds. Of course, the SSAB wasn't funded to have someone there, and DOE didn't want anyone from the SSAB present, either.

So for months these meetings went on - for about a year and half total. The SSAB was in the dark. During that time, we continually notified DOE that we, by consensus, wanted to be filled in on what was going on in these meetings and wanted input into the process. DOE officials kept telling us not to fret - that the time would come when the SSAB would be fully engaged in the process, with meaningful input. Personally, I never believed them, and that disbelief turned out to be justified. One morning we all woke to a headline in the Paducah Sun that an agreement had been "finalized" between DOE and the state. Unfortunately, the SSAB never was involved in any of this in any meaningful way. In protest, 7 members of the board, including me, about a 1/3 of the whole board, resigned. It got a lot of publicity at the time, but now it is buried in community history.

The agreement was spelled out in an "Agreed Order" between DOE and the state. It significantly changed the cleanup schedule at the plant. A plant neighbor who was also an SSAB member and a critic of DOE (his family property and wells had been contaminated), and I, represented by Tom Fitzgerald, environmental attorney with the Kentucky Resources Council in Frankfort, filed suit challenging this order. Again, I can't remember the year, but it was during the second Bush administration. It's been awhile.

DOE and the state, not being real confident in their legal position I'm sure, since they violated their own legal agreement for how to amend the legal agreement, opted instead to use delay tactics. The case bounced back and forth between state and federal courts. This chewed up valuable time and resources. Eventually it landed in state court in Frankfort, where it has sat inactive in the recent past.

About a month ago, I received a postcard from the court in Frankfort, informing me that unless we did something with the suit, it would be dismissed with the plaintiffs (me and the plant neighbor) would have to bear the costs. I contacted our attorney and after discussing it, agreed that the case was not as timely as it had been, and that dismissal would be the best thing. He contacted DOE and the state, who agreed that if we did move to dismiss, that they would bear their own costs. We filed such a motion with the court a couple weeks ago.

In the meantime, DOE pretty much got the SSAB they wanted. The board has kept a low profile, and represented to the community that the cleanup is going along just fine. But the recent conflicts between the Community Reuse Organization, a local click that got a lot of money from DOE to soften the blow from the eventual plant closure, and the economic development organizations, suggests to me that the cleanup isn't really progressing that well. I bet that is why there hasn't been any substantial progress on reindustrializing the site. And there won't be as long as it is as contaminated as it is. That is the reality. Some people should be held accountable for this, but I doubt if that will happen. They probably are getting awards for their great work.


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