FERMCO can't find records

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The company managing the cleanup at Fernald violated environmental regulations by failing to keep inspection records of the storage, handling and maintenance of hazardous and radioactive wastes.

The company also admitted to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency that they may have failed to conduct some required inspections.

Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co. (FERMCO) internal reports, obtained by The Enquirer, also show the company sometimes uses employees as hazardous and radioactive waste inspectors who have little or no training for the jobs.

A failure by FERMCO to do inspections and keep updated inspection logs would be one of the most serious violations of Ohio and U.S. EPA rules, according to Tom Schneider, Ohio EPA's project manager at Fernald. The lack of such records endangers workers, neighbors and the environment because it means workers may not know exactly what they are handling or if the materials are properly stored and maintained, he said.

FERMCO officials admitted the violations to the Ohio EPA, after agency officials confronted them with the The Enquirer's findings. However, FERMCO officials insisted to The Enquirer that the fact that documentation was missing did not mean hazardous wastes had been mishandled.

The internal FERMCO reports - which previously had not been seen by the state and federal EPA officials - reveal that the violations involving numerous projects have been going on since at least July 1995. The report shows that FERMCO:

Has no records for hundreds of EPA- and Energy Department-required inspections of hazardous and radioactive wastes stored in drums, rail cars, tanks, and contaminated buildings.

Failed to document and take corrective action on identified hazardous and radioactive waste problems such as leaks, overstacking, and dangerous storage practices.

Had inspectors finding ''unacceptable'' hazardous and radioactive waste problems, but failed to write down what and where the problems were so the violations could be fixed.

The FERMCO reports show that about 25 percent of the Fernald sites identified as having inspection problems deal with hazardous and radioactive waste storage areas, while the remaining 75 percent are contaminated areas or buildings.

Mr. Schneider said that after The Enquirer questioned him on March 12, he obtained and sent copies of the internal FERMCO reports to his superiors.

''I contacted FERMCO officials . . . and they confirmed they had a serious problem. We are now investigating this and the Ohio EPA is treating this as one of the most serious problems that can occur (at a nuclear cleanup site),'' Mr. Schneider said. If the wastes are not being inspected and monitored as required, ''it poses a safety problem for workers, nearby residents and the environment.''

''This problem is not just a case of missing inspection reports, because the FERMCO officials we have spoken with admit they believe some of these inspections were just never done. We're giving them a chance, however, to look some more for those records before we take any official action,'' he said.

Mr. Schneider said that if no inspection or corrective action reports can be found for the various Fernald sites, the Ohio EPA will conclude no inspections ever were done, not just that someone misplaced the paperwork.

Penalties against FERMCO could range from written reprimands and fines to a recommendation to the Energy Department that FERMCO be removed as manager of the site, Mr. Schneider said. ''I can tell you top (Ohio EPA) officials have been notified of this problem and that I've also reported it to the U.S. EPA,'' he added.

Energy Department spokesman Gary Stegner said the Energy Department also was unaware of the problem until notified by The Enquirer and then by the Ohio EPA.

The Energy Department is now monitoring the situation to ensure the inspection report problems are thoroughly addressed, Mr. Stegner said.

Jack Craig, the Energy Department's Fernald site manager, declined to be interviewed about why Energy Department employees overseeing FERMCO's work did not catch the problem since last July.

In a written response to Enquirer questions, in a letter signed on behalf of FERMCO President John Bradburne, the company said it considers the safe handling of hazardous wastes as one of its most important activities. ''As soon as we discovered the missing logs, we notified the Department of Energy and took immediate action to recover them. In fact we have located a substantial number of the missing logs, and at present, about 140 logs are missing out of approximately 2,700 logs for the period.''

Fernald is a former uranium-processing plant used by the government from 1951 to 1989 for production of nuclear materials used in making weapons during the Cold War. The 1,050-acre site is riddled with scores of individual cleanup projects, including contaminated buildings, radioactive waste-filled silos, contaminated pits, and thousands of storage barrels filled with radioactive and hazardous material.

Missing inspection reports and other documents are the latest in a series of problems with the cleanup at Fernald that have surfaced since The Enquirer first broke the story on Feb. 11.

The Enquirer revealed that FERMCO and its parent company, Fluor Daniel Corp. of Irvine, Calif., have cheated the government out of millions of dollars and jeopardized the safety of workers and neighbors at the Fernald site.

Earlier this month the newspaper also reported that structural defects have been ignored and covered up in the construction of a pilot plant that will be used to clean up radioactive wastes at the site.

Members of Congress called for the U.S. General Accounting Office to investigate The Enquirer's findings. That probe now is under way.

EPA violations ongoing

The internal FERMCO reports on the inspection and monitoring violations were prepared after company officials conducted a ''surveillance'' of records at scores of work sites around Fernald, according to the documents.

On Feb. 16, the company ordered the ''surveillance'' checks of more than 50 such sites. That was two days after The Enquirer reported in a series of articles that the Fernald cleanup has been marred by unauthorized spending, overstated progress reports, unsubstantiated travel expenses, questionable severance packages for private employees of FERMCO and workplace safety concerns.

The audit reports show FERMCO officials conducted their ''surveillance'' of the inspection records from Feb. 16 through Feb. 21, reviewing what inspection and corrective actions were done and what inspection records, if any, were created from July 1, 1995 to Feb. 16.

According to the reports, inspection and monitoring records were missing or incomplete for 44 hazardous and radioactive waste storage areas and contaminated buildings. The records also do not show if all the identified problems were corrected after they were discovered. For example, at Hazardous Waste Material Unit 18 (the Plant 8 West Drum Storage Pad where hazardous waste is stored in thousands of drums) the audit report found:

No weekly inspection log on file for the week ending Oct. 16, 1995.

Incomplete inspection logs submitted for Sept. 7, 1995 and Sept. 22, 1995.

No follow-up documenting completion of corrective action.

For instance, FERMCO found that the inspection log documented leaking drums, drums stacked without the use of straps, drums stacked in such a way they could easily fall over, and drums containing different hazardous wastes stacked together. There is no record in the log that the problems ever were corrected.

Another example of FERMCO's failure to follow the EPA monitoring and safety rules was found at Hazardous Waste Material Unit 54, where the site's thorium nitrate storage tank is located. Thorium is highly radioactive and considered among the most dangerous waste at Fernald.

The audit report revealed:

''Missing inspection forms dated 8/1/95, 8/17/95, 8/24/95, 8/29/95, 9/11/95 to 9/13/95, 9/21/95, 9/26/95 to 9/30/95, 10/1/95 to 10/3/95, 10/5/95, 10/6/95, 10/9/95, 10/10/95, 10/23/95, 12/9/95, 12/13/95, 1/12/96, 1/20/96, 1/28/96, 1/28/96, 1/30/96, 1/31/96, 2/1/96 to 2/16/96.''

''No Corrective Action follow-up on forms dated 7/5/95, 7/25/95, 7/31/95, 8/7/95, 8/14/95, 8/21/95, 11/14/95, 11/20/95, 11/28/95, 12/3/95, 12/23/95.''

''Two copies of an inspection form dated 10/22/95.''

''Inspectors checked Unacceptable for items on inspection form. No explanation is written in the comments section. Dates include 8/19/95, 8/28/95, 9/7/95.''

''Inspector not trained - inspection form dated 8/27/95.''

''NOTE: For over two months, inspectors indicated that the secondary containment was filled with water. This condition requires 24 hour correction.''

Another very serious violation of EPA safety rules and regulations revealed in the FERMCO documents is the company's use of untrained or inadequately trained inspectors, said Mr. Schneider of the Ohio EPA.

According to the audit report, FERMCO had identified six of its hazardous and radioactive waste inspectors who had little or no Energy Department- and EPA-required training before FERMCO put them to work.

The FERMCO internal audit also contained a one-page, ''Improvement Action Plan'' to deal with the inspection problem. Suggested actions included trying to locate the missing inspection logs; provide additional hazardous and radioactive waste inspector training; and increase company oversight of the inspection program. FERMCO records show the company has begun corrective action for many of the problems.

Government oversight

The Energy Department's manager at Fernald, Mr. Craig, declined repeated requests for interviews to discuss why his 56-member staff, which is responsible for overseeing FERMCO's work, failed to detect FERMCO's lack of inspection records and myriad violations. Ohio EPA investigators also failed to discover FERMCO's repeated inspection violations during their own routine and surprise inspections at the site, conceded Mr. Schneider.

''Usually once a year we have one full-blown inspection at Fernald,'' Mr. Schneider said. ''The last one was in June 1995.''

Asked why his investigators didn't notice the lack of, or incomplete, inspection records and corrective action forms at 44 different hazardous and radioactive waste locations, Mr. Schneider said that because of a lack of manpower, only a ''random sampling'' was done.

''Our annual inspection is site-wide and we look at a lot of things, so what we do is a random sampling of FERMCO's inspection records at a few sites, and if everything appears fine, those are the only ones we check and then we move on to other things,'' Mr. Schneider said. ''We occasionally will do other smaller inspections at Fernald during the course of the year, but those would be for more specific things.

''If we had known about the extent of (FERMCO's inspection) problems, we would have done a more complete investigation into it, but the fact is we didn't know about it until (The Enquirer) told us about it and provided us the reports,'' he added. ''The fact is we only have so many people . . . Unfortunately some things like this are missed.''

Mr. Schneider also said that another reason the Ohio EPA never saw the FERMCO internal audit reports obtained by The Enquirer ''is that we don't require FERMCO to provide us their internal audit records.

''Even though the company is required to follow EPA regulations, such as those requiring inspections, and they should have notified us and the Energy Department of problems like this, we don't mandate that they give us copies of their internal audits,'' Mr. Schneider said.

''We don't require that because if we ask companies to do self-audits and then they turn them over to us, and then we penalize them for what they uncover, those companies won't do the audits,'' he said. ''We'd rather have them identify the problems so they can be fixed.''

When asked how the public could be assured that Fernald safety problems were being identified and fixed, given the company's record, Mr. Schneider said:

''That's a good question. If we don't identify the problem through our inspections and the Energy Department doesn't catch it, and FERMCO doesn't tell us about the problems they've found, yeah, you're right, that's a very big problem.

''Please don't misunderstand me,'' Mr. Schneider said. ''We consider (FERMCO's) failure to do hazardous waste inspections one of the most serious infractions because of the potential consequences,'' he added. ''This is being taken very seriously by everyone.''

Mr. Schneider said not only will the state take action against FERMCO once the Ohio EPA investigation is completed - and formally establishes the wrongdoing - ''but this incident will prompt us to accelerate our next surprise inspection at Fernald as well.''

Published March 24, 1996.