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A look at mercury spill at DOE plant

Stephen Gough had a hunch. So one Saturday he and his brother walked through the woods to the edge of a narrow creek, downstream from one of the nation's federally run nuclear-weapons plants where he worked as a researcher.

What they found led to one of the most serious challenges to date to the Department of Energy's (DOE) claim that it can run the large network of federal nuclear facilities in a safe and environmentally sound manner without much outside scrutiny.

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Their discovery is also cited by some environmentalists who urge the United States to end its double standard for nuclear facilities - one for commercial plants and another, less stringent in some cases, for federal sites.

The Goughs cut off pieces of moss and roots along the bank and put them in a bag.

Stephen's brother, Larry, who works for the US Geological Survey, had the samples analyzed. What the brothers suspected turned out to be true - but to an even greater degree than they had imagined. The samples contained high levels of mercury, a poisonous waste product from the plant.

Their discovery triggered a chain of events that is not over yet.

Instead of praise for the findings, and a rush to clean up the mercury, Stehen Gough's superiors at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge, Tenn., plant reprimanded him and ordered the samples to be handed over. That was in April 1982.

A year later, after investigation by Tennessee water official Barry Sulkin, a Freedom of Information Act request from an area newspaper finally forced the DOE to release a document on the mercury spills from the Y-12 plant. The document showed that an estimated 2.4 million pounds of mercury had been discharged from the plant, primarily during the 1950s and '60s - and that the DOE had known about it since at least 1977. A congressional panel investigated the spills last year and concluded that over the years, the DOE had given the public ''ambiguous , incomplete, or misleading'' information about mercury from the plant.

The panel reported that the mercury, now in the Clinch River system or still trapped in the ground under the plant, ''does not present an immediate danger to the public health.'' But, it added, it was not clear about the impact from the pollution during 1950s and '60s and said the ''long-term'' effect depended on a good cleanup and monitoring program.

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The discharged mercury was not methylmercury, the highly toxic form that has caused human suffering at Minamata, Japan, and in Iraq in the past, the panel noted, but it is still considered a potential health threat.

Some environmentalists say instances such as that at Oak Ridge show the DOE cannot monitor itself. DOE officials disagree, saying they do a good job.

Contractors operating the DOE's nuclear facilities are responsible for both production and for health, safety, and environmental goals, notes the General Accounting Office (GAO), which reports to Congress. ''Thus safety and health concerns are pitted against program goals,'' the GAO concluded in a report in November.

The GAO suggested a more independent and higher-level review within DOE of health and safety questions. The DOE recently announced some reorganization, but it is too eartly to see if that will respond to the GAO concerns.

Environmentalists who follow DOE activity want it to be forced to comply with health, safety, and environmental standards at least as strong as those applied to commercial nuclear facilities. Under DOE regulations, for example, cardboard boxes can and are being used to bury some low-level nuclear waste in the ground. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which licenses commercial reactors, does not allow this.

Under DOE regulations, a person at the boundary of their nuclear facilities can be exposed to 500 milirems per year of radiation above background radiation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard allows only 25 milirems per year for a person at the edge of a commercial nuclear facility.

''The DOE should be taken out of their selfregulating posture,'' says Bob Alvarez, of the Washington-based Environmental Policy Institute. He and the staff at the Natural Resources Defense Council, suggest additional federal scrutiny of the DOE plants, perhaps by the NRC.

Currently, the DOE is exempt from NRC regulation. And the department, in a federal court case involving the Oak Ridge plant, is fighting to keep from having to comply with the federal hazardous-waste law, even as it is stepping up its waste cleanup efforts at the plant.

NRC Commissioner Victor Gilinsky says that in many cases NRC standards would not apply to DOE facilities. Civilian reactors are not producing nuclear weapons materials, for example. But, he said, where they are comparable, NRC standards are ''probably stiffer.''

And, he says, ''It would be useful to have the advice if not the concurrence of this agency (in approving DOE nuclear facilities).''

Joseph Maher, director of the DOE's office of nuclear safety, says the NRC is not prepared to regulate the Energy Department because of the differences in the kinds of facilities. And no additional regulation is needed, anyway, he says. After the Three Mile Island incident, which involved a commercial nuclear reactor, the DOE undertook a major review of its nuclear operations, found no imminent danger, but suggested some improvements, which the department has been implementing since then, says Mr. Maher.

The DOE has a good system of ''checks and balances'' to monitor safe and environmentally sound practices at its nuclear facilities, he says. Contract personnel at the plants, the DOE's regional and Washington offices, and the department's Inspector General all have people assigned to monitor plant safety and worker health, he says. The General Accounting Office, the investigative branch of Congress, also makes inspections and responds to complaints, he says.

Then why was the public not told for so many years about the mercury spills at Oak Ridge?

''Oak Ridge people knew about the problem and there were people here (DOE headquarters) who knew about it,'' Mr. Maher. ''The lesson learned is that as new people come on board (presidential appointees), they need to be made aware of those kinds of things.''

The first two articles in this series appeared on Feb. 2 and Feb. 6.