Fernald faults confirmed

But Energy teams reject 'deceit' label


BY MIKE GALLAGHER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Two U.S. Department of Energy teams assigned to review reports of financial mismanagement, safety problems and lack of Energy Department oversight at Fernald found they couldn't substantiate The Cincinnati Enquirer's characterization that there is ''Danger and Deceit'' at the site.

However, written reports by the teams verified that many of the specific problems at Fernald - noted in a recent series of Enquirer articles - were true and even recommended to Energy Department officials that they be reviewed and that steps should be taken to correct them.

Thomas Grumbly, the Energy Department's acting undersecretary, ordered the two teams in late February to review problems at Fernald that were identified in a series of Enquirer articles that began Feb. 11 following six months of research.

The investigating teams were made up of Energy Department employees from nuclear cleanup sites nationwide. Their investigations were completed in three days. Their reports were completed March 29 and released this week.

And despite the fact the teams were to investigate reports of oversight failures by the Energy Department's Ohio Field Office staff and their staff at Fernald, Robert Folker, deputy manager of the Energy Department's Ohio Field Office, was made a member of a review team.

Additionally, according to the report, ''Numerous staff members of the (Energy Department's) Fernald Area Office contributed a substantial amount of input to the team process in development of this report.''

The teams also conceded that they spent only three days conducting their probes and that ''technical problems'' prevented one group from running computer programs that could determine whether FERMCO was supplying the Energy Department with phony data, as reported in The Enquirer. FERMCO (Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co.) manages the site.

''The results of this independent review are qualified to the extent that the review approach was limited by the identified time constraints (only three days),'' according to the report.

In a March 29 letter to J. Phil Hamric, manager of the Energy Department's Ohio Field Office, Mr. Grumbly wrote:

''Neither team found any evidence supporting the Enquirer's characterization of 'Danger and Deceit' at the site. However, they did identify a number of recommendations for improvement.''

Those ''recommendations'' were based on findings by the teams that various examples of financial mismanagement, safety problems and Energy Department oversight problems identified by The Enquirer were true, including:

Control accounts and charge numbers, used by FERMCO to bill the government, were opened and used without authorization by the Energy Department.

FERMCO is continuing to design a full-scale vitrification plant (encapsulating radioactive material in glass-like blocks) even though a pilot vitrification plant hasn't even been tested; the pilot plant is costing millions of dollars over its original estimate; and design problems have put the project 17 months behind schedule.

FERMCO failed to report to the Energy Department incidents of barrels that were found leaking radioactive and hazardous waste.

Mr. Grumbly, Mr. Hamric and Jack Craig, the Energy Department's Fernald area manager, did not respond to requests for interviews on the report Tuesday.

Lawrence K. Beaupre, executive editor of The Enquirer, said, ''These reports, based on a scant three-day examination, are an attempt by an agency under siege to put a positive spin on problems in which it has a vested interest.

''Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that it recommends many changes as a result of The Enquirer investigation. A more far-reaching and independent investigation is now being conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), which we believe will confirm the Enquirer's findings,'' Mr. Beaupre said.

The GAO was called in to investigate problems at Fernald by U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, and U.S. Sens. Mike DeWine and John Glenn of Ohio. Its investigation could last several months.

Published April 3, 1996.