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EPA tries to uncloak waste disposal at US weapons plants. DOE defends its practices, saying even trash can reveal arms secrets

Behind a veil of secrecy, the string of nuclear weapons plants across the country produces parts for bombs and other nuclear devices -- and, in the process, they produce huge quantities of nuclear and other hazardous waste. Environmentalists contend that some of the waste disposal has been unsafe. They say this endangers people living in the vicinity of the plants, some of which are near large cities, including Cincinnati and Denver.

But until recently the veil of secrecy has covered not only weapons production but waste-disposal practises as well at these Department of Energy-run plants. Congress deliberately put the DOE in the position of regulating itself. The main reason: the less known about what goes on at the DOE weapons plants, the greater the security against leaks of information on how many bombs and what kind are being made. Even garbage can tell tales, according to DOE officials.

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Now, however, as the result of a federal court suit, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and, through it, some state environmental offices, have been given authority to regulate disposal of nonnuclear waste at the plants. The DOE lost the suit but now admits that some outside inspection of its waste disposal can be made without giving away secrets.

But since much of the waste is ``mixed'' -- nuclear and nonnuclear -- negotiations are under way between the EPA and the DOE over how far this new authority will extend. An agreement is expected within a few months.

Meanwhile, some federal and state environmental officials who have been getting a peek at the DOE waste operations as a result of the lawsuit are more convinced than ever that some of the disposal practises have, indeed, been unsafe.

Tennessee officials have found numerous instances in which the DOE was not meeting federal EPA standards on nonnuclear waste disposal at the Y-12 weapons plant at Oak Ridge, says Mary Johnston, assistant general counsel of the state Department of Health and Environment. The plant was also the site of massive mercury spills that for years were kept secret by the DOE, according to a congressional report.

But, she says, the DOE is now ``cooperating to a great extent'' in cleaning up environmental practises at the plant, which was the subject of last year's lawsuit resulting in expanded EPA authority at such places. Ohio officials are concerned about the DOE's recent admission that uranium dust has for years been escaping into the atmosphere at the Fernald plant near Cincinnati. Although state officials agree with the DOE that the levels of dust are not harmful, they are concerned about the effect of it settling and washing into area water sources.

In Washington State, officials are trying to force the DOE to stop using perforated pipes in the ground as a waste disposal method at the Hanford Reservation near Richland. While the nuclear waste may adhere to the soil as it spills out the pipe, hazardous nonnuclear waste mixed with it could eventually seep into ground-water supplies, says Roger Stanley, a supervisor with the state Department of Ecology.

Ohio and Washington are preparing to sue the DOE to force quick compliance with federal and state environmental laws, now that the EPA and state environmental laws apply to some degree. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a public-interest law firm based in Washington, D.C., is also preparing to sue the DOE over operation of two of its Ohio plants.

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South Carolina officials are pressing the DOE for more details of its waste practises at the Savannah River Plant. ``There are a number of problems at DOE facilities,'' says W. Alexander Williams, an official at the EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. And, he says, ``We've had differences of opinion with the DOE over a number of issues.''

But, he adds, things are improving at the DOE nuclear weapons plants. He and Art Linton, an EPA Southern regional official in Atlanta, credit the DOE with making a sincere effort to improve its waste-disposal practises.

``We're trying to clean our act up,'' says Henry Garson, the DOE's assistant general counsel for environment.

``We have a lot of Superfund [type] problems,'' he adds, referring to the federal fund for cleaning up the nation's most serious private pollution sites.

Most of the problems stem from practises begun before much was known about much of the nonnuclear hazardous waste generated at the plants, he said. ``Most of our earlier efforts at pollution control focused on radioactive waste,'' Mr. Garson says.

In the 1940s some high-level waste was even injected in an underground aquifer at the Hanford Reservation in Washington, he says. ``We've learned a lot since the '50s.''

According to Garson and Williams, the agreement shaping up between the EPA and DOE is likely to give the EPA authority over mixed low-level nuclear waste (from such sources as contaminated clothing) as well as nonnuclear waste. ``We are very close to agreement,'' Garson says.

But not everyone is convinced that the DOE will cooperate. ``The DOE will attempt to undermine further regulation,'' says Jack Van Kley, an assistant attorney general for Ohio.

Barbara Finamore of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which was part of the suit against the DOE in Tennessee, says the court decision should apply to mixed waste as well. ``We thought we won more than the DOE thought we won. We've gotten very little.'' She contends the DOE is trying to use the mixed-waste issue as a ``loophole'' to escape further EPA scrutiny.

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