Haste Makes Waste

Are We Paying for Cut-Rate, Shoddy Military Cleanup?

Rocky Flats nuclear facility became the Department of Energy’s (DOE) golden child in July when the last of the weapons-grade plutonium stored there was shipped away ahead of schedule. For nearly 40 years, Rocky Flats, just 15 miles northwest of downtown Denver, produced plutonium pits or "triggers" for thousands of the country’s stockpiled nuclear weapons.

Workers in radiation suits dismantle "the most dangerous building in America"—the military plant that produced nuclear triggers in Rocky Flats, Colorado.© AP Photo / Jack Dempsey

Remediation at the Flats, a highly contaminated Superfund site, is also moving forward dramatically under budget. Instead of the anticipated $37 billon, cleanup is now projected at $7 billion.

In a time of federal budget deficits, and with Superfund’s core funding stream whittled away to $28 million, accelerated cleanup seems too good to be true. Many community members and environmental organizations—while happy to see the 6,400-acre site out of commission—are concerned that the project is being done in haste and find it unsettling that plutonium residue and toxins will be left several feet under the surface.

"I supported the decommissioning of Rocky Flats, but the way it was done will leave too much residual radioactive material," says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a national nonprofit working with local groups in Colorado.

The contamination at the Flats is just a small part of an enormous toxic legacy created by American military operations. According to some reports, there are 169 heavily contaminated nuclear weapons waste sites throughout the U.S. and 23,326 toxic "hotspots" on Department of Defense (DOD) waste sites. These sites are contaminated with radioactive materials, unexploded ordnance, heavy metals, jet fuels, solvents, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and chemical weapons waste that are known to cause cancer, autoimmune diseases, respiratory problems and reproductive dysfunction.

The Maine-based Military Toxics Project claims the DOD is the nation’s largest polluter, with 260 installations either designated or under consideration to be designated as Superfund sites.

The expedited cleanup process at the Flats is a function of regulatory shortcuts and financial incentives. An agreement with cleanup contractor Kaiser-Hill gives the firm 30 cents of every dollar it saves. "This has encouraged our contractor to find ways to do everything they can cheaper," says John Schneider, DOE’s assistant manager for projects at Rocky Flats. "Most other DOE sites are seeking to implement the same kind of incentive system."

Schneider adds that this project boasts Kaiser-Hill’s best safety record in memory, while meeting environmental requirements using fewer people. Some citizens and advocacy groups question the efficacy of this strategy. "Contractor reform is important, but it often means companies cut corners to make money," says Susan Gordon, executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability.

According to Schneider, Kaiser-Hill has saved years and millions of dollars by coming to an agreement with the state of Colorado on how to tweak the Superfund regulatory process. Instead of conducting a full risk assessment up front, cleanup is conducted piecemeal and evaluated at the end for overall risk. "They made a decision to close Rocky Flats by 2006 and spend $7 billion without ever having thoroughly characterized the site," says LeRoy Moore, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder.

Unlike other contaminated sites, Rocky Flats has earned goodwill and $660 million a year from the DOE and Congress because of its proximity to a major metropolitan area and its proximity to a closure date.

States with nascent DOE cleanup efforts often have to compete for limited funds. In his first year in office, President George W. Bush proposed a $1 billion cut to DOE’s cleanup budget. Met with harsh bipartisan criticism, he restructured his request the next year and cut $800 million from the regular budget to form what Gordon refers to as a cleanup slush fund. She explains that states receive additional cleanup money from this fund only if they create Performance Management Plans that reduce cleanup spending. "This type of cleanup results in more contamination in the soil and water in the future," she says. "The DOE is trying to walk away from levels of cleanup agreed to in the past."

Another controversial closure strategy is to turn DOE and DOD sites into National Wildlife Refuges. Since the 1930s, Congress has transferred more than 30 DOD sites to the Fish and Wildlife Service for eventual inclusion in the refuge system. Vieques in Puerto Rico is one of the latest additions.

Rocky Flats, valuable habitat for black-tailed prairie dogs, painted turtles, red-tailed hawks and the threatened Preble’s Meadow jumping mouse, will be the second DOE site included. The first is the Hanford Reach National Monument/Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in Washington State, designated in 2000. Here pelicans and elk make their home next to the nuclear reactor that created plutonium for the atomic bomb used to obliterate Nagasaki during World War II.

"It’s cheaper to clean the site to protect only a wildlife refuge worker than it is to assume people will eventually be living there and using some of the water," says Moore. By Superfund standards the cleanup at the Flats is sufficient for residential use, according to Tim Rehder, Rocky Flats project coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

What happens with residual contamination once Kaiser-Hill packs up its bag of tricks and heads for the next cleanup site? "There are concerns over long-term stewardship because of future budget cuts and changing policies. How will we make sure that 25 or 100 years from now the federal government maintains the required vigilance over the remaining contamination?" asks David Ableson, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Coalition of Local Governments. Just three years away from the closure date, the DOE doesn’t have answers. "We don’t have a final plan; we’re in the process of determining long-term strategies," says Karen Lutz, a DOE spokesperson.

In many ways the cleanup of Rocky Flats is simply just transferring the contamination from Colorado to other states, including South Carolina, Texas, Nevada, Tennessee and New Mexico. The last of the weapons-grade plutonium was shipped to DOE’s Savannah River site in Aiken, South Carolina, much to the chagrin of then South Carolina governor Jim Hodges, who lost a federal court fight to block the waste. There are also still several thousand drums of low-level mixed waste at Rocky Flats that are "orphaned," or without a depository. Cleanup managers are hopeful that some of this waste can be shipped to the Hanford nuclear reservation, which has one of the world’s largest environmental cleanup projects in progress.

Possibly overwhelmed by the cost of cleaning up the military’s mess, Bush decided that the DOE could begin to reclassify high-level nuclear waste as "incidental," meaning it is subject to less stringent cleanup standards. This essentially allowed the DOE to abandon more than 100 million gallons of dangerous radioactive waste at Hanford, Savannah River and another facility in Idaho. Waste at Hanford is leaking into the Columbia Rive

r and stored waste at Savannah River sits in the water table. An Idaho judge ruled that this new definition is a violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, but the DOE is fighting back. "If the decision stands," DOE spokesperson Joe Davis has been reported as saying, "it could lead to a tremendous burden on the taxpayers and jeopardize our ability to clean up our sites sooner."

The estimated expense of remediating DOE sites is $350 billion, while cleanup of DOD sites is predicted to be another $30 billion, according to the Military Waste Cleanup Program at Mt. Holyoke College. Total funding allocated for the cleanup of DOE sites in 2003 was $5.9 billion and for DOD sites $1.3 billion. At this rate it will take 60 years to cleanup the country’s nuclear contamination, assuming no more is produced.

However, the Bush administration does not see the costs of cleanup as an impediment to beefing up the defense budget and adding to the potency of this country’s nuclear weapons. A new $22 million plutonium pit production facility has been proposed so that stockpiled weapons can be "refreshed" in the name of homeland security.