Knoxville News Sentinel: Alexander prods energy secretary on Oak Ridge mercury cleanup

Posted on March 16, 2012

Sen. Lamar Alexander wants the government to get going on mercury cleanup in Oak Ridge, and he made his case directly to Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a Senate hearing earlier this week.

"I want to make it an increasing priority to develop a plan to clean up the mercury," Alexander told Chu Wednesday, when the secretary appeared before the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee.

Many tons of mercury, which is toxic, were spilled or discharged at Y-12 in the 1950s and '60s during development of hydrogen bombs, with much of it ending up in East Fork Poplar Creek. Fifty years after the Cold War project was concluded, East Fork is still posted as a mercury hazard. Even though mercury discharges from Y-12 have been reduced significantly, the Oak Ridge plant remains out of compliance with the Clean Water Act.

During opening comments at the hearing, Alexander said there had been a lot of progress cleaning up radioactive waste at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities, but not nearly enough when it comes to mercury.

"To date there are over two million pounds of mercury unaccounted for and the continued releases of mercury at Poplar Creek run through the town. This is a dangerous substance," Tennessee's senior senator said. "It's going to take a long time for an appropriate job of cleaning it up, but we need to get started."

In an interview last year for the News Sentinel series, "Mercury's Menace: Y-12's Cold War Legacy," Alexander said the federal government has a "moral responsibility" to clean up the mercury at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, even during tight budget times.

At Wednesday's hearing, Alexander asked Chu, "Do you have a plan for addressing mercury and its cleanup in Oak Ridge, and what steps should we begin to take to keep it from getting into the water?"

According to a transcript provided by the senator's office, Chu responded:

"First, you're quite right to be concerned about this. We've already taken some steps in the sense that, when there are rains, we have a holding pond for the stormwater, so that the solids get deposited before it's returned to the river. And we know that this is mitigating the problem, but we eventually have to address this problem. It is a very important problem. And it's very much on our radar screen.."

Chu's comments about using a holding pond to mitigate the mercury problem were apparently off-base.

Y-12 uses a couple of treatment facilities and other measures to reduce the plant's discharges of mercury. However, information provided over the past year by officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration, DOE, contractors and environmental regulators did not suggest the use of a holding pond to capture mercury during rainstorms.

A diversion pond — known as Lake Reality — was constructed years ago near the point where East Fork Poplar Creek leaves federal property. However, the pond is apparently available only to contain spills in an emergency situation. Regular use was discontinued because conditions there reportedly supported the formation of methylmercury, the most toxic form of mercury that accumulates in fish.