Fernald must hit deadlines

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has refused to extend the deadlines on a key cleanup project at Fernald, blaming delays on incompetence by the U.S. Department of Energy.

In an Oct. 2 letter to an Energy Department official at Fernald, the EPA said problems with the project ''demonstrate poor planning and management on behalf of U.S. DOE between the design and construction phases of the project.''

The project in question is a vitrification pilot plant that already has cost millions more than originally estimated. The pilot plant is to be a test model for a yet-to-be-built larger vitrification plant that is supposed to encapsulate 20 million pounds of radioactive sludge into glass-like pellets.

The letter was written by James A. Saric, the U.S. EPA's remedial project manager of the Federal Facilities Section, to Johnny Reising, a Fernald Energy Department official. A copy was obtained by The Enquirer.

The Energy Department had requested extensions for six design, testing and construction deadlines, the first of which was missed on Sept. 30. The other deadlines fall every few weeks between now and Jan. 2. Failure to meet those deadlines may result in millions of dollars in penalties being assessed against the Energy Department, according to the U.S. EPA.

Those penalties could then be passed on to Fluor Daniel Fernald, the company managing the cleanup at the 1,050-acre former uranium processing plant.

In a series of articles that began Feb. 11, The Enquirer has revealed, among other Fernald financial and mismanagement troubles, that the vitrification project is riddled with problems. When Fluor Daniel Fernald won the cleanup contract in 1992, it was estimated the pilot plant would cost $14.4 million. Today that cost has jumped to $42 million and it is projected to rise to $56 million before completion, according to the company. Another $30 million has been spent on research and study of the vitrification process.

Last Sunday The Enquirer reported that Fluor Daniel Fernald President John Bradburne revealed in an Aug. 15 letter to the Energy Department that the company is considering changing or scrapping the vitrification project because it can't get the pilot plant to work properly.

The U.S. EPA's action is a financial, political and public relations blow to Energy Department officials at Fernald as they try to justify the growing costs of the troubled project, according to Lisa Crawford, president of Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH).

''I don't think they are ever going to get that project to work because there are so many problems with it,'' Ms. Crawford said. ''The worst part is that particular waste contains the most dangerous radioactive material on the site and must be removed as soon as possible.''

In his letter, Mr. Saric said EPA's concerns with the pilot plant problems were discussed with the Energy Department at meetings on Oct. 26, 1995, and Aug. 20, 1996.

''U.S. DOE had ample opportunity within the schedules established to resolve any design problems and proceed with development . . . Under these circumstances, U.S. EPA cannot concur with U.S. DOE's position that there is good cause for the requested extension,'' he wrote.

The U.S. EPA, the Energy Department and Fluor Daniel Fernald just missed a Sept. 30 vitrification design project deadline. They now will miss project deadlines on Monday, on Nov. 13, two on Dec. 4, and one on Jan. 2, 1997, according to the U.S. EPA.

Fluor Daniel Fernald spokesman Rick Maslin issued a written statement saying, ''Fluor Daniel Fernald is committed to working with all of our stakeholders, including the regulators, in developing the safest, most appropriate path forward . . . We will continue to operate the vitrification pilot plant to obtain the right information as it relates to full-scale implementation of vitrification.''

The U.S. and Ohio EPA, Fluor Daniel Fernald and the Energy Department will meet in March to determine whether to proceed with the project or end it.

Published Oct. 6, 1996.