Feds dig deeper at Fernald

Local congressmen have more concerns

The Cincinnati Enquirer

A federal probe into reports of mismanagement and safety violations at the former nuclear plant in Fernald is being expanded, delaying the government's findings until next spring.

At the request of congressional leaders who initiated the investigation in the spring, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) will expand its probe to determine what internal financial controls are in place and why the 10-year timetable for the cleanup may be extended.

The former uranium-processing plant in Crosby Township, 18 miles northwest of Cincinnati, is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Fluor Daniel Fernald is a private company with a $2 billion contract to manage the cleanup of the site.

Officials at DOE and at Fluor Daniel Fernald have declined to comment, pending the release of the GAO report.

GAO investigators are looking into allegations of mismanagement and safety problems raised in a series of Enquirer articles that began Feb. 11.

The series also revealed a pattern of lax oversight by DOE officials at the site and at the department's Ohio Field Office.

The GAO's final report had been scheduled to be completed and turned over Dec. 16 to Sens. John Glenn and Mike DeWine, and Reps. Rob Portman and John Boehner. That date now has been changed to March 14.

Mr. Portman, R-Terrace Park, requested the probe Feb. 12, and his request soon was joined by the other local members of Congress. The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.

New questions about the Fernald cleanup schedule and internal financial controls arose at an Oct. 9 meeting between GAO officials and congressional staff members.

Because of those questions, the GAO told the local members of Congress in an Oct. 11 letter that it will now ascertain what internal financial controls are in place. The letter also said investigators will determine ''exactly what the facts are surrounding Fluor Daniel Fernald's recent announcement that it may take 12 to 15 years to complete the cleanup, rather than the previously agreed upon 10 years.''

The DOE and Fluor Daniel Fernald say they remain committed to the cleanup in 10 years as originally planned.

Control accounts comprise charge numbers that are used by Fluor Daniel Fernald to bill the government for various labor costs, material purchases, and so forth. The Enquirer has reported that Fluor Daniel Fernald opened unauthorized control accounts and billed the government for unapproved costs. A subsequent DOE investigation confirmed the newspaper's reports.

The Enquirer also reported recently that the DOE in June cut its proposed Fernald budget by at least $10 million per year, effectively killing its own 10-year accelerated cleanup plan for the site.

The initial GAO investigation at Fernald was outlined in a July 11 letter sent the congressmen by Victor S. Rezendes, the GAO's director of energy, resources and science issues.

That letter, in part, reads, ''The Cincinnati Enquirer . . . raises questions about the adequacy of DOE's oversight of (Fluor Daniel Fernald), the contractor responsible for managing the cleanup activities at Fernald.''

Mr. Rezendes, in his letter, said his staff would:

Review DOE and and Fluor Daniel Fernald's investigations of the major allegations and the status of any corrective actions.

Obtain additional evidence regarding the major allegations from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency; the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board; whistleblowers; the company; and several of DOE's own offices, including its inspector general's office; Ohio Field Office; Environment, Safety and Health office; and Environmental Management Office.

Perform case studies of two or three major projects at the site.

Mr. Rezendes, in his letter, also said his staff would develop site-wide information about Fernald by analyzing trends in cost and timeliness for projects and activities managed by Fluor Daniel Fernald since Oct. 1, 1993.

Published Oct. 15, 1996.