Friday, May 16, 1997
Fernald mess back to square 1
New disposal methods may be on table

Copyright 1997, The Cincinnati Enquirer

After spending $70 million on a process that is not working, the U.S. Department of Energy has been told it can start over in cleaning up 20 million pounds of radioactive wastes at Fernald, a decision that could delay completion of the project for at least 18 months.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which controls how cleanup of the federal facility should be done, has told the Energy Department it can begin considering new ways to dispose of the wastes stored in two deteriorating silos at the site.

"This decision by the EPA will allow us to look at all alternatives to determine the best path forward for handling this waste," said Gary Stegner, Energy Department spokesman at Fernald. "We will be looking to do a feasibility study that may take up to 18 months to complete."

The EPA orally relayed its decision to the Energy Department last week. Mr. Stegner said department officials are awaiting the formal, written decision by the EPA before commenting further. Fernald, a 1,050-acre site 18 miles northwest of Cincinnati, refined uranium for the government's weapons program during the Cold War.

Many people who live around Fernald are frightened that the EPA decision means nothing will be done to deal with the waste in the two silos for at least two years, said Lisa Crawford, president of Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH).

"Everyone is concerned and confused," said Ms. Crawford. "This (EPA) decision was made behind closed doors without our input. We are a little scared. We are trying to remain calm. They already did a feasibility study beginning in 1993 for this project, and now we're told they are starting all over again.

"It's been proven that Fluor Daniel Fernald and the Energy Department don't know what the hell they are doing out there with this project," she said. "What is frightening is that the worst radioactive waste at Fernald will now sit there untouched for at least another two years."

Technically, the EPA decision means the agency will open Fernald's "Record of Decision" - a legal document that mandates how and when specific cleanup activities at Fernald will be completed by the Energy Department.

EPA's decision to open the Record of Decision gives the Energy Department the authority to again initiate preliminary studies to decide how to clean up the silos' waste. Prior to the decision, the Record of Decision set legally enforceable completion dates for various aspects of the project, many of which were missed by Fluor during the past nine months.

A large part of the $70 million already spent on the vitrification project went to build the pilot plant that has been idle since December, when its melter leaked during a test and spewed about a ton of molten non-radioactive material inside the building.

A U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report released in April strongly criticized the Energy Department's and Fluor Daniel Fernald's handling of the vitrification project. Congressional leaders said both were responsible for wasting tens of millions in taxpayers' dollars with the failed project.

Members of Congress called for the GAO investigation after an initial series of stories by The Enquirer revealed that Fluor had bilked taxpayers out of millions of dollars; Energy Department oversight at the site was lax or non-existent; and millions of dollars had been wasted on the vitrification project.

The Energy Department then appointed an independent review team, made up primarily of vitrification experts, to recommend the best path forward for dealing with the silos' waste. That team voted 6-5 to recommend continuing with vitrification according to a report issued last month. The minority recommended encasing the waste in concrete blocks.

In a related development, The Enquirer has obtained a yet-to-be released report by the Army Corps of Engineers that recommends solidification (concrete encasement) of the silos' waste as the best method of stabilizing and removing it.

The Energy Department commissioned the Army engineers in October 1996 to review nuclear cleanup sites - including Fernald - and recommend improvements.

The corps found that:

  • "The decision to vitrify the waste was correct based on disposal criteria and cost data available at that time (1994)."

  • But "Based on current knowledge and experience with vitrification and solidification methods . . . solidification becomes a more favorable stabilization method than vitrification."

  • Cost and schedule estimates provided to the independent review team by Fluor "were pre-conceptual and conservative," and thus not reliable.

Mr. Stegner, the Energy Department's Fernald spokesman, said he could not comment on the Army engineers' report "because no one here has seen it."

"All I can say is that the EPA is the agency that has the authority to decide what will be done here; we (Energy Department) can only recommend what we think should be done."

DANGER & DECEIT: Enquirer investigation home page