EPA proposes removal of radioactive storage tanks
Buffalo News Staff Reporter

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is proposing that underground tanks containing highly radioactive residue at the West Valley Demonstration Project be exhumed within the next 10 years.

EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg made the suggestion at a West Valley meeting Thursday with the various state and federal agencies involved with the project.

The proposal was made, according to EPA press officer Elias Rodriguez, "with the aim of moving all parties forward" in what has become a contentious debate between the two partners in the project, the federal Department of Energy and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

The DOE has resisted calls by NYSERDA and environmental groups like the Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes to remove the tanks, instead advocating that they be entombed in place.

"Any movement on the part of the federal government to properly clean up the remaning waste at the site is positive," said Judy Einach, the coalition's campaign director. "Any efforts to cooperate are also a plus."

The nearly empty tanks once contained 600,000 gallons of highly radioactive nuclear waste. The project's groundbreaking accomplishment over the past 20 years has been the retrieval of almost all of that liquid and its transformation into a more stable glass-based solid. The tank issue is part of a larger disagreement between the DOE and NYSERDA over the criteria for closing the site, and who should be responsible for its long-term stewardship.

Negotiations over those issues broke down at the end of the Clinton administration and have stalled since then.

In April, NYSERDA announced that it planned to sue the federal government over the issue unless an agreement was forthcoming. And last year, New York's congressional representatives sponsored legislation that would have the DOE assume long-term care of the site.

NYSERDA President Peter R. Smith called the EPA's suggestion "a positive development," adding, "I hope the DOE views this as a positive development."

DOE spokeswoman Megan Barnett said the department is "studying all options to ensure the safe decommissioning of the tanks at West Valley." She added that all of the parties had agreed "to take part in a series of meetings to discuss and resolve key issues related to selecting a site decommissioning approach."

Under the EPA's proposal, a joint Pilot Demonstration Tank Removal Project, comprising federal agencies like the EPA, DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, would develop a plan for removing the tanks and complete that task within 10 years.

That action would provide "clean closure on the (site's) north plateau, and the environmental impact study would reflect this as part of the preferred alternative" for closing the site.

In an unrelated matter, three groups have submitted bids to the DOE for performing the next stage of cleanup at the site from 2007 to 2010, according to the industry publication Weapons Complex Monitor.

One of the groups is led by Washington Group International, whose subsidiary has been the only contractor the project has known since it began in 1981.

Another group involves Barbara Mazurowski, the DOE's former director at West Valley. The third bid came from a group led by Colorado-based CH2M Hill.

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