2004: A Nuke Odyssey

The Department of Energy finally promises to clean up the St. Louis areas’s long-neglected radioactive waste in the next 8 years, but leaves many questions unanswered

BY C.D. STELZER

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Dec. 11, 1996

It took more than 50 years, but last week the federal government finally pledged to clean up the St. Louis area’s long-neglected radioactive waste sites by 2004.Undersecretary of Energy Thomas P. Grumbly made the historic announcement on Thursday at the Clayton Community Center. The 850,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste — located at scores of sites around the area — are a byproduct of the nuclear weapons manufacturing dating back to World War II. Those attending Grumbly’s speech included public officials and members of a citizens’ task force who submitted recommendations to the Department of Energy (DOE) in September.

“There will never be a bunker in the St. Louis area — at least on my watch.” — DOE undersecretary Thomas P. Grumbly, December 1996.

Grumbly drew applause when he announced “there will never be a bunker in the St. Louis area — at least on my watch.” The applause echoed the results of a 1990 non-binding referendum in which city and county voters overwhelming disapproved of any plan to permanently store the nuclear waste here.

One result of that public outcry has been bi-partisan political support for disposing of the waste outside the area. Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, and Democratic St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. and County Executive Buzz Westfall all attended last week’s meeting to show support for the DOE’s commitment to ship the waste as soon as possible. Some 28,000 cubic yards of contaminated materials from 21 sites have already been sent to a low-level radioactive waste dump in Utah. Moreover, Congress allocated an additional $23 million to continue the clean up in 1997.

But the fate of the remaining nuclear waste is still very much a matter of speculation. “There are some serious issues that remain,” said Talent, after the meeting. “It’s promising, but I don’t want to pretend that it’s all worked out, that it’s to everybody’s satisfaction.”

The congressman’s reservations may be understated. One sticking point in completing the project appears to be the 22-acre airport site — the largest in the area. In his speech, Grumbly emphasized that the DOE remains unconvinced of the need to clean up the airport site to the unrestricted-use level recommended by the local task force, the Sierra Club and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“He (Grumbly) just doesn’t feel that a site at the end of a runway needs to be cleaned up … the same way you would a residential site,” says Talent. “It’s a legitimate point, but I don’t think that the DOE has looked adequately at the effect on the ground water. The (waste) is sitting on an aquifer.”

Leaving any of the radioactive material at the site would risk further contamination of underground and surface water. But earlier this year, a report by a DOE-appointed panel of geologists declared that the water would miraculously not migrate off the site, and, therefore, it would be safe to leave the waste in place. Two of the six panel members – including one from the DNR — took exception to the findings, however. On Thursday, Grumbly suggested that another hydro-geological study be conducted in the next three months to determine what level of safety would be required.

“We all feel like it needs to be cleaned up so it won’t continue impacting Coldwater Creek,” says environmentalist Kay Drey, a member of the citizens’ task force. The creek is on the long list of remediation sites, which also includes: haul routes, a former athletic field in Berkeley, a landfill in Bridgeton, and parts of the Mallinckrodt chemical plant on North Broadway, where uranium was first purified in 1942.

The DOE, according to Grumbly, would like the entire mess tidied up within eight years, an optimistic goal given the bureaucratic impediments. Aside from the DOE’s lead role, the DNR and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are mandated by Superfund law must to oversee and approve the project. Grumbly, nevertheless, expects a formal Record of Decision (ROD) for the clean up by the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30. That gives the DOE a little more than nine months to work out a myriad of details.

One of those details is prefaced by a dollar sign and has a lot of zeros behind it. “We have no money to do this,” says Drey. The environmentalist points out that the $23 million dollars earmarked for the clean up this year represents a significant increase in past funding for the project, but is still only a fraction of what will be needed to complete the job. The uncertainty over future funding is not expected to abate so long as the Clinton administration and the Republican-led Congress try to out hack each other in deficit reduction. Or as Grumbly puts it, “We’re in a very competitive budget environment.” The effect of the imminent departure of Energy Sec. Hazel O’Leary is also unknown.

As recently as July, the DOE estimated that removal and off-site storage of the waste would cost $778 million. A revised estimate cited last week ranges from $250 to $600 million. The wide difference in the bottom line hinges on, among other things, the choice of technology and the level of clean up specified in the yet to be completed ROD. The contract to carry out the clean up is held by Bechtel National, Inc., a subsidiary of the giant engineering corporation. Potential local sub-contractors that are queuing up include: Sverdrup Evironmental,the National Center of Environmental Information and Technology, Clean Earth Technologies and R.M. Wester and Associates.

Despite the expertise and available alternative technologies, Grumbly gave little indication Thursday that the DOE is seriously considering anything more than digging the irradiated dirt up and hauling it away. If the DOE chooses to clean up the airport site to less stringent levels than recommended locally, it will save money. But the legal and ethical question then becomes whether the scaled-back remedy is protective or human health and the environment.

For many Westerners, who will likely be on the receiving end, there is nothing ethical about any of this. The probable final destination for St. Louis’ radioactive waste seems to be either Utah or Washington state. The Envirocare low-level radioactive waste depository in Clive, Utah has already received some St. Louis shipments. In 1993, before any of the St. Louis waste arrived, state inspectors found Envirocare in violation of a dozen safety regulations.

But the questionable Utah facility now has competition. Last year, the Washington state Department of Health granted a low-level radioactive dump license to the Dawn Mining Co. in Ford, Wash. The majority of Dawn Mining is owned by Denver’s Newmont Mining Co., the largest mineral extractor in North America. Rather than pay for filling a 28-acre, 70-foot-deep, uranium-tailings pond on the Dawn property, Newmont wants to charge the government $5 a cubic foot to accept low level radioactive waste. Although the DOE hasn’t agreed to the proposal yet, representatives of Dawn Mining have tried to solicit the support of the St. Louis citizens’ task force as far back as November 1995.

The Spokane Indian tribe and Dawn Watch, an environmental group, are opposed to shipping the St. Louis waste to their community. “Our position is the site is still an unacceptable location for a commercial waste dump,” says Esther Holmes, a member of Dawn Watch. “(We) have been advocating that the site be cleaned up using clean fill at the company’s expense.” The tailings pond is located near a tributary of the Columbia River and threatens a nearby Indian fish hatchery.

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