Leaking drums pose hazards

Removal delayed to save money, Fernald workers say

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Barrels filled with radioactive and other toxic liquids at Fernald are allowed to leak onto other containers and the floor of a storage area during weekends because the company hired to clean up the site wants to save money, employees at the plant have told The Enquirer.

Twelve employees of Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co. (FERMCO), working as ''motor vehicle'' drivers responsible for moving the leaky drums to a ''repacking area,'' said they fear the company is putting employees' safety in jeopardy.

The drivers say that:

55- and 85-gallon drums that spring leaks on the weekend are often left leaking on other drums and on the floor until Monday because the company does not want to pay drivers overtime to be there to move them.

Both low-level radioactive waste and non-radioactive toxic waste leak out of the drums because of small punctures or corrosion.

FERMCO officials are underreporting to the U.S. Department of Energy the number of leaky drums discovered to cover up the seriousness of the problem.

The Plant 1 area occasionally is shut down and sealed off because radioactive material has leaked out of the drums. The non-radioactive material that leaks out is sopped up with giant pads by workers.

FERMCO monitors fail to identify some leaky drums because the liquid already has leaked down to the puncture level. Failure to discover these, they say, could result in drivers being splashed when the drums are moved. So far, no driver has been splashed as a result of an unidentified leak, but the drivers say they believe such an accident is inevitable.

''Every Monday we report to work and almost every time we have a backlog of leaky barrels from the weekend that have to be moved,'' said one driver with more than 10 years experience at the plant.

''The stuff in those barrels leaks on other barrels underneath them and sometimes all over the floor . . . and that's what we often walk into on Monday because this company (FERMCO) doesn't want to pay one of us to be on hand over the weekend to immediately move them like they're supposed to.'' The driver asked for anonymity.

Monitors required

The employees said FERMCO and the Energy Department have a policy that requires human ''monitors'' to inspect daily the more than 25,000 barrels filled with nuclear waste stored in the Plant 1 pad area. The barrels are stored there prior to being shipped to such places as Nevada for disposal, said Energy Department spokesman Gary Stegner.

But that monitoring policy doesn't mean a leaky drum is removed immediately, he added.

The barrels contain material that either was stored in drums by companies hired before FERMCO was contracted to clean up the site, or material that FERMCO workers have placed in them since beginning work in late 1992. Energy Department officials say they expect hundreds of thousands ofdrums to be packed and removed from Fernald before the cleanup is complete.

Once a leaky drum is discovered by a FERMCO monitor, Mr. Stegner and the drivers say, a driver picks it up with a vehicle equipped with mechanical ''fingers'' and places it into a large plastic sack. The driver then picks up the sack and takes it off the Plant 1 pad area to another building (Building 71) where workers in protective garb place the entire leaky drum into a larger drum and seal it. The process is called ''repacking.'' Once the process is completed, the driver then returns the newly encased drum to the Plant 1 area for storage.

The 12 FERMCO employees told The Enquirer that, until last summer, the company required that drivers be assigned to the Plant 1 pad storage area to work with the monitors every day - including weekends - to ensure leaking drums were removed as soon as they were discovered. There are approximately 60 drivers at Fernald.

But last summer, the drivers said they were told by FERMCO supervisors that no drivers would be assigned to Plant 1 on the weekends to remove leaky drums. The reason they were given? The company wanted to save money by not having to pay them overtime for the weekend work, the drivers said.

The 12 drivers whose identities and employment at Fernald were verified by The Enquirer, asked for anonymity, citing fear of losing their jobs or retaliation by FERMCO officials because they spoke out.

The men also said they would be willing to discuss the safety problem and their concerns with investigators for the U.S. General Accounting Office. The GAO was called in Feb. 12 by U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, and other congressional leaders to probe reports of financial wrongdoing, safety problems and lax Energy Department oversight at Fernald, located 18 miles northwest of Cincinnati.

Gene Branham, vice president and official spokesman of the Fernald Atomic Trades & Labor Council, which represents more than 650 workers at Fernald, including the drivers, said:

''I can confirm that the union has repeatedly received complaints from our workers about the leaky drums and the fact that the company (FERMCO) often leaves them leaking through the weekend. Our drivers are then forced to move them when they come in on Monday. It most definitely is a serious safety problem. But FERMCO doesn't want to spend the money to have those guys (drivers) on hand to immediately take care of the problems. FERMCO just doesn't care. The Energy Department tells us its a FERMCO decision.''

Verbal complaints issued

Mr. Branham said union officials have talked to FERMCO and Energy Department officials about the leaky drum problem numerous times, ''but they just don't seem to care. They ignore the problem.'' No formal, written complaints have been made, he added, ''because the system for notifying them (FERMCO and the Energy Department) of problems as they occur has always been verbal. Maybe that should change.''

Mr. Stegner, the Energy Department's Fernald spokesman, responding in a two-page letter to Enquirer questions about the problem, said the department does not require FERMCO to have a driver ''on stand-by for the purpose of moving leaking drums.''

''If the (FERMCO) Assistant Emergency Duty Officer (utility engineer) determines that a drum needs to be moved, he will utilize available personnel on-site, or if necessary, the utility engineer will call in a driver,'' Mr. Stegner said.

''For example, if a slowly leaking drum is discovered on Saturday, the utility engineer will call in a vehicle driver to report to work on Sunday to move the drum. If the leak is more substantial, the utility engineer has the authority to initiate immediate mitigative measures,'' he said.

The drivers told The Enquirer that, since last summer, FERMCO never calls them in on the weekends to remove a leaky drum.

Mr. Stegner said he wouldn't deny that FERMCO officials allow some drums to leak overnight on the weekends, ''but the decision on whether to have those drums removed immediately is up to them (FERMCO).''

Mr. Stegner would not comment on the drivers' concerns that FERMCO officials' decisions to sometimes allow nuclear waste drums to leak overnight or through a weekend was putting them in danger.

Leaks said underreported

The drivers also said that FERMCO officials were ''underreporting'' the number of leaky drums that are being discovered on the Plant 1 pad area.

Mr. Stegner, in his letter, told The Enquirer that ''it is important to emphasize that the Plant 1 pad is designed to contain all leaks. Material leaks are categorized as follows: Type 1 leaks occur when a drum deteriorates, resulting in material flowing from the container with accumulation on the underlying containment or pallet; Type 2 leaks occur when materials are found only on the exterior of the drum (no material reaches the underlying containment or pallet).''

In 1995, Mr. Stegner said, there were 33 Type 1 leaks on the Plant 1 pad, and one Type 2 leak. In 1996, ''there have been no Type 1 or Type 2 leaks on the pad, to date.''

All 12 drivers said the Energy Department ''was lying'' or that FERMCO officials have lied to the Energy Department in their reports about the number of leaks.

''We just moved four leakers (leaky drums) this past week that had leaked on other drums and on the floor,'' said one driver. ''They're (FERMCO and Energy Department officials) liars. But they sure as hell can't lie to me about it because I'm moving those things. Who are they trying to kid?''

FERMCO spokesman Jack Hoopes said the company has reviewed questions from The Enquirer regarding worker concerns about leaking barrels. ''FERMCO finds these allegations have no substance.''

Mr. Hoopes also said the company provides a ''hot line'' where workers can telephone in information about safety problems. Additionally, he added, ''Any employee who feels his or her safety is or has been jeopardized has the right to refuse work without fear of reprisal, harassment or retaliation.''

Reprimands feared

The 12 drivers laughed after being told of FERMCO's response.

''Sure, we could tell them we refuse to work with the drums because it's unsafe,'' said one driver. ''Workers have done that at other unsafe work sites here. But then those complaining workers are either laid off, or reprimanded privately, or demoted to do other paper-shuffling work. This company hates people who speak out for their rights or become whistle-blowers because no one fixes the problems, no matter what they try to tell you or the public.''

Asked about the drivers' statements that there have been substantially more leaky drums discovered on the Plant 1 pad area than what has been reported by FERMCO, Mr. Stegner said in his letter to The Enquirer:

''Leaks are reported to (the Energy Department) through the appropriate reporting mechanisms, which are determined based on the type of material and the quantity of leak. Leaks are reported on an internal tracking system, called the Assistant Emergency Duty Officer Log, and a copy of the log is provided to (the Energy Department) daily.''

Published March 4, 1996.