Tank cleanup riddled with problems

Delays, design errors, contamination reported

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Shortly before radiation leaks and spills occurred in a cleanup project at Fernald, the company hired to do the work eliminated inspection requirements that may have prevented the incidents, The Enquirer has learned.

The company also filed false reports, violated U.S. Department of Energy rules and used defective ''leakproof'' pumps for the project, which was to remove about 200,000 gallons of radioactive liquid called uranyl nitrate hexahydrate (UNH), from 18 leaky storage tanks.

While the UNH cleanup was completed in August 1995, it initially was delayed and then was riddled with design, equipment and radiation contamination problems, according to records of the Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co. (FERMCO), the Energy Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

According to a senior FERMCO management source assigned to the UNH project, FERMCO downgraded the inspection requirements to ''speed'' the process along so the company could earn as much in performance fees as possible.

FERMCO and its parent company, Fluor Daniel of Irvine, Calif., came ''very close'' to having their $2.2 billion contract to clean up Fernald terminated by Energy Department officials last year because of their handling of the UNH project, Jack Craig, the Energy Department's chief at Fernald, told The Enquirer in a recent interview.

The threat of canceling FERMCO's contract came from Thomas Grumbly, currently the Energy Department's Acting Undersecretary and then-assistant secretary for environmental management in charge of nuclear cleanup sites nationwide, said Mr. Craig.

Mr. Grumbly decided to allow Fluor Daniel - FERMCO to keep its five-year contract, which expires in December 1997, after company officials promised to improve its work and reporting efforts.

FERMCO now is the focus of several investigations launched after a recent four-day series by The Enquirer that detailed numerous problems of Fluor Daniel - FERMCO. Those problems include the companies' creation of inflated work and cost estimates; issuance of phony reports on cost and performance of various projects; misuse of control accounts and charge numbers used to bill the government; site-wide safety incidents and hiding work-related problems from the Energy Department.

Ongoing investigations are being conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office; the Energy Department's Office of Inspector General; and auditors of the department's Ohio field office.

The UNH was created during the past two decades at the former uranium processing plant when workers dissolved the uranium in nitric acid to ''strip it'' of excess material. The delays in the UNH cleanup were publicized last year, but until now nothing has been reported publicly about what caused those problems.

According to several FERMCO management sources, one of the most significant actions by the company that led to the leaks and spills was a 1994 decision to eliminate and - or reduce inspection requirements of equipment being built to remove the UNH.

Prior to that decision, Energy Department and FERMCO rules for the UNH project required FERMCO's construction manager or his designee to:

Perform all quality control visual pipe inspections.

Use a dye penetration test to examine welds in key piping systems during an ''in-process examination.'' The dye would run through the pipes to make leaks more easily detectable.

Have a certified inspector visually examine all slurry, magnesium hydroxide, and nitric acid piping and 20 percent of all the remaining piping.

The new requirements eliminated the dye testing and allowed a less-qualified quality assurance employee to conduct the visual inspections rather than the FERMCO construction manager.

A ''FERMCO Field Change Request,'' dated April 19, 1994, and obtained by The Enquirer, says the inspection requirements were changed to ''Eliminate unnecessary inspection requirements will (sic) still assuring system operability.''

The request was written by FERMCO employee David L. Painter on April 19, 1994, and approved on April 20, 1994, by FERMCO Quality Control specialist Vernon J. Turner, and on May 5, 1994, by Anthony P. Pyrz, a design official on the project.

As a result of the reduced inspections, some problems that should have been caught began to crop up, FERMCO management sources said.

Those problems, documented in FERMCO, EPA and Energy Department reports, include:

Aug. 10, 1994 - FERMCO failed to properly design and operate a secondary containment system that would hold 100 percent of the capacity of the UNH tanks; and failed to design and install another containment system to completely surround the tanks.

Oct. 13, 1994 - FERMCO notified Energy Department officials that severe leaking of the ''leakproof'' pumps used to remove UNH from the tanks ''may delay the initiation of neutralization,'' scheduled to begin in January, 1995.

Dec. 28, 1994 - Approximately 500 gallons of ''filtrate water'' used in the UNH project leaked inside Plant 2-3 and about 10 gallons leaked outside the plant, the result of ''improper design and operation of a valve, and a broken weld on a new filter line.''

Dec. 30, 1994 - During testing of the pump that would be used to transfer the UNH to new tanks, 10 to 15 gallons of filtrate again leaked from the system.

Jan. 19, 1995 - UNH leaked from the system because of a defective steam coil line. The UNH project was placed in emergency shutdown.

Jan. 26, 1995 - UNH leaked into another tank through a defective pipe.

Feb. 1, 1995 - FERMCO reports finding 64 leaks. An independent design review team finds that FERMCO should replace the defective pumps it had installed for the UNH project ''with the type of pumps originally designed for the process.''

April 4, 1995 - Two to three gallons of UNH leaks out of a steam coil. Three maintenance pipe fitters were splashed and contaminated with the radioactive liquid.

The identities and medical conditions of the three pipe fitters were not disclosed in the FERMCO and Energy Department reports reviewed by The Enquirer. The records identifying the workers and what medical treatment they underwent are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

Asked about the change in inspection requirements and the subsequent problems on the UNH project, FERMCO spokesman Jack Hoopes said Friday, ''That project is now finished. Everything we did on that project is a matter of public record, including the problems we had.''

Problems caused delays

While the elimination of inspection requirements led to problems immediately before and after the UNH cleanup was under way, The Enquirer also has learned that other FERMCO problems led to the project being delayed.

The Energy Department, EPA and FERMCO all had agreed that FERMCO would complete its building and testing of equipment to be used in the UNH project by the end of December 1994 so actual cleanup could begin Jan. 17, 1995.

But according to FERMCO, EPA and Energy Department records and sources, FERMCO repeatedly made false performance claims to the Energy Department in 1994, by stating that it had successfully completed various studies and equipment testing. FERMCO also failed to successfully complete an Operational Readiness Review (ORR) as required by the government.

The Energy Department failed to review FERMCO's claims that it had successfully completed the required UNH removal studies and tests until December 1994, only a few weeks before the actual cleanup was to begin. The Energy Department and the EPA then ordered the UNH project delayed because of the discovery of the problems.

Energy Department and EPA records also show that FERMCO failed to initially create a safety and operational program for the project, mislabelled tanks, used defective ''leakproof'' pumps, improperly maintained logbooks, and encountered numerous procedural compliance and training problems.

Mr. Craig told The Enquirer that FERMCO was not financially penalized for the violations or the deceptive performance reports. EPA records confirm that FERMCO was not assessed penalties.

''These issues were discussed with FERMCO's (management), but I don't believe any money (penalty) was taken back as a result of all that,'' Mr. Craig said. ''You have to keep in mind that our main concern was to get this (UNH) safely contained and removed.''

Noting that Energy Department officials have been criticized for not ensuring that FERMCO had completed the necessary UNH studies and tests, Mr. Craig said, ''Any time you award a contract to a company you have to have a little trust that they are going to do the right thing.''

Published March 5, 1996.