Thursday, March 20, 1997
Fernald critics
energized

Neighbors want 'action,
not promises'

BY MIKE GALLAGHER
and TIM BONFIELD
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Neighbors and union leaders at Fernald are demanding an immediate fix of safety, financial and oversight problems at the site identified in a federal audit released this week.

Suggestions by those leaders include taking a major, problem-plagued cleanup project out of the hands of Fluor Daniel Fernald, the company managing the site; hiring more and better qualified Energy Department employees, and implementing more stringent oversight measures.

''I think it is clear that DOE needs more people ... qualified people,'' said Lisa Crawford, president of the Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH). ''We want action, not promises. Trust is not a very big word with us lately. A lot of things have happened in the last few months at Fernald that make us distrustful.''

An audit of the Fernald cleanup by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), released Tuesday, said that the Department of Energy had failed to exercise adequate supervision of Fluor Daniel Fernald, allowing millions of dollars to be wasted at the site in the past two years.

Those weaknesses in oversight have resulted in increased costs, project schedule slippages, and safety and health risks, according to the GAO report.

The almost year-long GAO investigation was sparked by a series of Enquirer articles that began Feb. 11, 1996, detailing mismanagement, financial improprieties, safety and oversight problems at the 1,050-acre site. The former uranium processing facility is located about 18 miles northwest of Cincinnati.

Ms. Crawford said Wednesday the GAO report should send a wake-up call to Fluor Daniel Fernald and Energy Department officials in Washington D.C. ''to fix what's wrong and make sure controls are put in place to prevent them from recurring.''

She said Fluor Daniel Fernald's five-year, $2 billion contract to manage Fernald's cleanup should not be renewed when it expires in November ''if major changes aren't made'' in the way they do business.

''DOE will have to take a very strong look at renewal of their contract,'' she said. ''Fluor will have to demonstrate some very good effort before we (FRESH) will support their rehiring.''

The GAO report was particularly critical of cost overruns and delays at a vitrification pilot plant, designed to test a process for encapsulating 20,000 pounds of radioactive wastes in glass-like pellets. Those pellets then could be shipped elsewhere for burial. The GAO report and earlier DOE Inspector General findings say the project is more than $55 million over budget and 19 months behind schedule.

''We also need to take the site's vitrification project away from (Fluor) ... because they have repeatedly screwed it up,'' Ms. Crawford said. Fernald stakeholders and the Energy Department ''will have to have very heavy discussions and brainstorming sessions to determine how and to whom that contract should be given,'' she added.

Gene Branham, vice president of the Fernald Atomic Trades & Labor Council, which represents about 800 workers at the site, said GAO investigators confirmed how serious many of the management, oversight and safety problems are at Fernald.

''There needs to be a great many changes,'' he said, but added that failing to renew Fluor's contract in November for another year ''might be worse than bringing in an unqualified company.

''DOE needs to improve its oversight by hiring better people and close monitoring of Fluor's corrective actions is mandatory,'' Mr. Branham said. ''Mandatory and severe penalties must be imposed for failure to comply with government rules.''

Mr. Branham said he agrees that another company with expertise in vitrification should be hired at Fernald, ''but I think Fluor needs to be involved in working with them so we don't lose all their knowledge of the project.''

Many of the financial questions and oversight concerns raised in the GAO report are not direct concerns for the Fernald Citizens Task Force, said its chairman John Applegate. The advisory group, formed by DOE to study clean-up options, is more concerned about whether all the controversy will slow down the Fernald cleanup project.

The task force is most concerned about plans for cleaning up the K-65 silos - which contain the waste to be vitrified. Those wastes are considered by citizens and the government to pose the most significant health risks at Fernald.

On Saturday, the task force recommended that vitrification ''should be pursued vigorously,'' Mr. Applegate said. The GAO report issued Tuesday does not change that view, he said.

However, the task force on Saturday also called for developing an alternative plan for removing the K-65 waste in case vitrification does not work.

Mr. Applegate said he does not think the problems cited in the GAO report justify entirely removing Fluor Daniel from the Fernald clean-up when its contract expires in November.

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