Casey wants study of how site cleanup was handled
U.S. Sen. Robert Casey has asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to do a study on the handling of the Parks Township nuclear waste dump site.
The 44-acre site along Route 66 was used as a waste dump by BWX Technologies, also known as Babcock & Wilcox. Radioactive and chemical waste from the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) in Apollo and Parks also was buried there from the early 1960s to the early ‘70s.
In his letter to Gene L. Dordaro, GAO comptroller general, Casey said: “Numerous delays and setbacks have marked this project, the most recent being in September 2011 when the Pittsburgh District of (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) determined that a project contractor mishandled hazardous material. At the same time, the Corps also encountered higher quantities of complex nuclear material at the site than originally expected.”
In a phone interview with the Valley News Dispatch on Wednesday night, Casey said he believes a study is needed to ensure all participating federal agencies have acted “properly, thoroughly and cooperatively” in complying with a memorandum of understanding about the project.
He also wants the study to look at the agencies' “gaps in knowledge” of the materials buried at the site and if they properly assessed the remediation work.
“We're hoping the GAO will be able to take a close look at what each federal agency has done, or not done as the case may be; and to make recommendations to speed it up because it's taken too long,” Casey said. “I think we need to start hearing answers on how long this remediation will take and whether residents' health and safety is at risk.”
Dan Jones, spokesman for the Army Corps in Pittsburgh, said the Corps is aware of Casey's request.
“We will cooperate as necessary as we move forward with the project,” he said. “We look on it as a good thing. And as we move forward, we're going to be reviewing things to ensure the safety of the community.
“Anybody that can help, we want them to be as involved as they can be because the safety of the community is paramount above everything else.”
Excavation for the cleanup was halted in 2011 when the contractor hired for it unearthed unexpected quantities of complex nuclear materials.
Federal officials reconsidered the Corps' involvement in the project but eventually decided to keep it as the lead agency, but have the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy more closely involved.
Currently, the plan is to award a new contract for the cleanup by October.
The cleanup is expected to take 10 years and cost $500 million.
“Once again, Sen. Casey has been picking up the gauntlet for his constituents down here, and the people of this area need this type of champion,” said Patty Ameno of Leechburg, an environmental activist and watchdog for the project.
However, Ameno, who is chairwoman of a local group, Citizens' Action for a Safe Environment, thinks the actual cleanup work won't begin until 2015 and said it should not wait that long.
She fears for the safety of the people living in the area, noting that local first- responders and residents still have not received an emergency contingency plan in the event of a problem that might result in a release of radioactivity from the site.
“This waste dump, in 25 years has been plagued with continued problems, continued delays and personally I don't understand it, given regulatory ‘experts' that initially had it,” she said. “Continued delays only put the public safety at risk and undoubtedly inflate the cost.”
Jones said he expects the excavation work to resume in 2014. He said speeding up the cleanup is something the Corps wants to avoid.
“We don't want to rush anything with this project, especially excavation,” Jones said. “We want to make sure that we are doing this the right way.
“The review part of this is a very important part of this project,” he said. “So we look on this as a good thing because you are getting other people involved to look at it from an entirely different perspective.”
He said that the project this time around will not deal with a set cost in the contract, which might prompt a contractor to expedite work unnecessarily in order to cover costs and realize a profit.
“What we are doing is looking at what they call a ‘cost-plus' contract,” Jones said. “We wanted to take the incentive for doing things quickly out of the contract. We'll go as slow as necessary. We don't want this driven by speed.”
As for the project being able to advance more quickly based on the Corps' experience with the site to date, Jones said: “Every shovelful of dirt we are going to learn from. It's not something where we are going to put our heads down and plow through something. We are going to take our time, excavate, look at what we find and dispose of it properly.
“I don't think we are ever going stop learning from his project.”