Senators call for Fernald probe


BY TIM BONFIELD and MIKE GALLAGHER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ohio's two senators have joined local congressmen in calling for an independent government probe of problems with the cleanup at Fernald uncovered in an Enquirer investigation.

Democrat John Glenn and Republican Mike DeWine agreed with Republican Congressmen Rob Portman and Steve Chabot that the General Accounting Office needs to investigate the cleanup contractor and the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns and oversees the site.

The $2.2 billion contract to clean up the former uranium enrichment plant 18 miles northwest of Cincinnati is being done by the Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co. (FERMCO), and its parent company, Fluor Daniel Corp., of Irvine, Calif.

Mr. DeWine has scheduled a press conference to follow a private tour he will take at the site this afternoon.

''If the allegations are valid, there is a lot of correcting to be done there,'' Mr. Glenn said Wednesday during a meeting with reporters in his Washington office. ''We really want to get to the bottom of it.''

In a four-part series this week, The Enquirer reported that the Fernald project has been marred by unauthorized spending, overstated progress reports, excessive travel expenses, questionable severance packages for private employees of FERMCO and workplace safety concerns.

Several watchdog groups said this week that The Enquirer's reports cause them deep concern about how well the Energy Department has managed the multibillion-dollar job of cleaning up America's nuclear weapons sites.

''Fernald was supposed to be a model of how to do it right,'' said Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the Military Production Network, a national alliance of 32 groups concerned about nuclear waste. ''If you can't do it right at Fernald, what does that mean for the rest of the program?''

Mr. Schaeffer said the cleanup job at Fernald is considered easier than the work needed at several other nuclear waste sites around the country.

Fernald's environmental problems are linked primarily to uranium, some radioactive byproducts, and the hazardous chemicals used during production. Fernald does not have large amounts of plutonium and other more dangerous nuclear materials as do Hanford, in Washington; Rocky Flats in Colorado and Savannah River in Georgia, Mr. Schaeffer said.

Other cleanup watchers said they are not surprised by the reports about Fernald because they have contended for years that the Energy Department does not keep a tight rein on its private contractors.

''This is the kind of behavior that has plagued the (nuclear weapons) program for decades,'' said Daryl Kimball, an associate director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a Washington-based activist group.

''In the past, the problem was that production was the priority,'' Mr. Kimball said. ''Today, the problem is that the contractors are still more or less in charge of the cleanup and the taxpayers' representative - the Department of Energy - does not have the resources they need to make sure that the contractors are doing the job that's assigned.''

The Enquirer's report on safety concerns at Fernald, including several instances of workers being exposed to radiation, was reminiscent of problems under previous contractors, said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Mr. Makhijani's organization conducted studies at Fernald before FERMCO's arrival that found the government consistently underestimated worker exposure to radioactive materials and uranium emissions into the environment.

''It continues to be as bad as it ever was,'' Mr. Makhijani said. Not all Fernald watchers, however, criticize Fluor Daniel - FERMCO's operations.

Lisa Crawford, president of Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH), said she wants to see more substantiation of the reported problems before commenting.

John Applegate, chairman of the Fernald Citizens Task Force, said ''FERMCO has been a model of openness and candor in their dealings with us. I really can't say enough about how committed FERMCO has been at involving the public in the project.''

Reporter Paul Barton contributed to this story

Published Feb. 15, 1996.