The U.S. Department of Energy is attempting to weaken standards for remediation at the Oak Ridge Reservation Superfund site in Tennessee, two state and federal agencies say, fearing the changes could pose health risks to the public and threaten the environment.
The agencies — the Environmental Protection Agency and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation — and environmental groups are worried about the long-term implications the DOE's remediation plan could have. The plan could undo nearly 30 years of work to protect the East Tennessee population from the harmful material at one of the country's leading nuclear facilities and have implications for future generations, some believe.
"We're talking potentially hundreds of years of contamination," said attorney Amanda Garcia with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has been fighting the changes and would like to see more time for public comment.
The current DOE plan at the site is two-fold: 1. keep some hazardous waste on-site in a proposed landfill, and 2. use less-stringent regulations for landfill runoff rather than more protective guidelines the EPA wants to enforce to protect water quality.
The changes come amid an unrelated issue for TDEC at the site. A congressional appropriations budget would cut grant money that funds Tennessee's operations to oversee the remediation program.
The EPA's Region 4 Office and TDEC have filed complaints and written letters of concern more than a dozen times in the past year outlining their belief that the changes could expose the public to harmful contaminants and limit the state's ability to oversee cleanup operations.
"For nearly 30 years, this agreement, work plan and concurrent federal funding has facilitated effective and protective cleanup for both the [Oak Ridge Reservation] and surrounding East Tennessee communities," TDEC Commissioner David Salyers wrote in a Nov. 5 letter to U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., about the budget cut. "The appropriations language puts the state's ability to perform its role, the rate of clean-up progress and our mission for Oak Ridge at risk."
However, the DOE says its standards are more than adequate and will save money that can be used for personnel to help with remediation. The department also argues it has enough money to continue its remediation despite the funding cut that will only hinder the state's ability to oversee the remediation efforts. It is confident its plan will meet federal guidelines and protect the public.
"[TDEC] appropriately wants to be confident that the landfill is protective of groundwater resources and surface water resources. That has been a key state focus," said David Adler, the quality and missions support division director for the DOE's Oak Ridge Environmental Management Program. "We have data for groundwater and surface water in the Bear Creek Valley. Year after year it illustrates that we're not having a significant environmental impact on surface or groundwater."
KEEPING CONTAMINANTS ON SITE
The Oak Ridge Reservation Superfund site contains hundreds of contaminated areas, according to the EPA.
Among those are old buildings that were used for the Y-12 National Security Complex — the Oak Ridge nuclear defense facility.
That's where the dispute begins.
Some of the buildings stored contaminated radioactive material but are no longer in use and are being torn down.
The DOE disagrees with TDEC on where those building materials should now be stored.
Largely, contaminated material at Oak Ridge is sent to western states to be buried in a desert. That's what TDEC would seemingly like to see in this instance, as well, according to public documents.
However, the DOE has proposed to build an on-site landfill to store the material. This solution was tried by TDEC, the EPA and DOE in 2002. TDEC and the EPA argue building another landfill would put the public at risk if it is not more strictly regulated. TDEC has numerous concerns with the DOE's proposal and encourages the department to take corrective action to improve the landfill, if they keep it on-site.
DOE says its plan would accelerate environmental cleanup, save costs and reduce transportation risks.
TDEC does not agree. It put together a 32-slide presentation for an August stakeholders briefing outlining why the decision is not in the best interest of the community.
But DOE says keeping the building material and soil in Oak Ridge could save upward of $1 billion, a figure TDEC argues is incorrect by hundreds of millions of dollars.
"If we get on-site disposal, we will avoid tens of thousands of truck or rail shipments across the country for material that doesn't really need to be shipped," Adler said. "That allows us to avoid transportation hazards and significantly reduce the cost of the cleanup program. We can put all that money into cleanup in Oak Ridge. Transporting that is expensive. We don't want to spend it all on trucks and fuel. We want to spend it on work cleaning up Oak Ridge."
DOE plans to build the new landfill, arguing the original project was key to the success of the cleanup. Department officials believe they can replicate that success and improve from some of the lessons learned from the first landfill: generally, how to manage water generated by cleanup operations, Adler said.
WATER QUALITY STANDARDS
From there, the argument turns to what standards should govern the new landfill.
The EPA Region 4 office and TDEC want to use more protective standards. Groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Sierra Club and an Oak Ridge City Council member who worked at the laboratory have sided with those groups and are calling on Congress and the DOE to use the higher standards.
"By calling for the use of the [less stringent] standard, the Senate report language would deprive Tennesseans of the public health protections that all Americans are promised under the Superfund statute," Oak Ridge councilwoman Ellen Smith wrote in an action sheet put together for the Sierra Club. Smith worked as an environmental scientist at Oak Ridge for 36 years.
The DOE is challenging the Region 4 office's authority to implement such standards. The department would prefer to use discharge limits that it says it uses at other sites and that are more similar to standards applied to commercial operations, Adler said.
"The limits that are currently employed are nationally and internationally recognized as protective of public health and the environment," he said.
The DOE's challenge of Region 4's authority was sent to the office of EPA director Andrew Wheeler, who will issue a final decision on the matter. His decision is not expected to come until after the holiday season, according to an EPA representative.
Additionally, a Senate appropriations bill would eliminate federal grant funding for TDEC to oversee remediation efforts at the site.
The grant allowed the state agency to "serve as the eyes, ears, voice, and technical advisor of the people of Tennessee in ensuring that the DOE cleanup is protective of public health and safety," Smith wrote.
"Loss of this funding would deprive Tennesseans of our only voice in cleanup decisions and would undermine public trust in the safety and effectiveness of DOE's cleanup," she added.
Salyers' Nov. 5 letter to Alexander — chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations committee — details the effectiveness of the current system that involves TDEC, the EPA and DOE working together. In the letter, Salyers asked Alexander to restore the funding.
"The [Oak Ridge Reservation] is arguably one of the most complex Superfund sites in the United States in terms of volume and diversity of contaminants released to the environment. What makes the ORR even more unique is its proximity to significant populations and vibrant natural resources," Salyers wrote. " Even in the midst of our dialogue over the proposed [landfill], this critical cleanup endeavor continues and TDEC remains committed to a constructive working relations with DOE to ensure compliance."
The current appropriations bill is set to expire Thursday.
A spokesman for Alexander's office sent the following statement.
"Funding for Oak Ridge cleanup is on track to increase 58% since Senator Alexander has been chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. The Senate version of the Fiscal Year 2020 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill includes $682 million for Oak Ridge cleanup including $70 million to complete construction of the Mercury Treatment Facility that Chairman Alexander called on DOE to build to help get mercury out of Oak Ridge."
Contact Mark Pace at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.