Mercury dispute in Oak Ridge

mercurysignIt’s not unusual for the Department of Energy to be at odds with environmental regulators on details regarding cleanup projects in Oak Ridge. That’s a part of the negotiating process. But one of the disputes has now reached the formal dispute stage and it involves a  high-profile, $125 million mercury-treatment facility at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant.

Tennessee’s Department of Environment and Conservation and the U.S. EPA are in dispute with DOE regarding the design of the treatment facility at Y-12’s Outfall 200. That’s where much of the plant’s legacy mercury is discharged into the East Fork Poplar Creek — which has been posted as a toxic hazard since the early 1980s.

DOE reportedly initiated the dispute.

“We are continuing to work on the project, and have scheduled a late April meeting with EPA and TDEC to discuss the formal dispute,” Mike Koentop, executive officer in DOE’s Office of Environmental Management in Oak Ridge, said in response to questions.

“We all share the common goal of constructing the mercury treatment facility at Y-12, and we are confident that we will work through our differences and develop a path forward for the project,” Koentop said. “The formal dispute is primarily related to how robust a facility we will construct.”

According to documents associated with the dispute, DOE is requesting a waiver from the Tennessee Ambient Water Quality Criteria standard for mercury for the treatment facility.

DOE said the waiver would be “consistent with the existing remedial action objectives” under the previously agreed upon Record of Decision for the Upper East Fork.

The mercury contamination at Y-12 is a legacy of the Cold War development of hydrogen bombs, which required vast amounts of the the toxic metal to separate lithium isotopes for use in the weapons. Tons of mercury were discharged into the local creek or otherwise lost into underground caverns and groundwater.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.