Environmental Protection Agency sued over Oak Ridge landfill for radioactive waste

Suit by environmental alleges toxic runoff could infiltrate waterways

Department of Energy / Environmental Management Waste Management Facility
Department of Energy / Environmental Management Waste Management Facility

Note: This story was updated on Oct. 28 to clarify the source of the debris.

The Environmental Protection Agency is illegally withholding records that could shed light on why it approved plans to build a radioactive waste landfill in Oak Ridge over the objections of senior government officials, an environmental group claims.

The landfill serves as a receptacle for remnants of decades-old low-level radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. Its debris comes from demolished structures from the Y-12 National Security Complex and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The landfill’s location – on a Superfund site near scenic local waterways – raised contamination concerns among officials within the EPA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler nevertheless approved the plan, which required waiving Clean Water Act rules, in the waning days of former President Donald Trump's administration. The decision was upheld by his successor in President Joe Biden's administration, Michael Regan.

(READ MORE: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, site cleans up 75-year waste legacy)

Now, according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility advocacy group, holdover EPA officials from the prior administration are responsible for illegally denying its Freedom of Information Act requests related to Wheeler's decision for nearly a year.

The agency is "frustrating (the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility's) efforts to adequately understand and educate the public regarding EPA actions and policies" that guided the landfill decision, a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month in the District of Columbia said. The suit is seeking a court order releasing thousands of records related to the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, landfill.

An EPA spokesperson said Thursday the agency does not comment on pending litigation. The Department of Energy did not respond to questions from the Tennessee Lookout.

The decision to create a landfill that could leak potentially toxic runoff into Northeast Tennessee streams and creeks has raised broader concerns.

(READ MORE: Gov. Lee wants Tennessee to lead in new nuclear energy development)

The Department of Energy, which operates the Oak Ridge site, has indicated it intends to pursue similar waivers of the Clean Water Act at a Superfund site in Paducah, Kentucky.

"Superfund aims to clean up toxic hot spots, not create more of them," said Tim Whitehouse, a former senior EPA enforcement attorney who now serves as the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility's director. "The core issue is that Superfund cleanups must be done in accordance with, not in violation of, the Clean Water Act."

The EPA division housing Superfund has not had a leader under the Biden administration because the Senate has not confirmed one, "leaving the program in the hands of holdover staff," Whitehouse said.

EPA staff who prepared briefing material for Regan, the Biden administration chief who upheld his predecessor's decision to green-light the landfill, suspect the concerns they raised did not make it through those holdover senior staff, the advocacy group said.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.


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