Federal and state environmental officials expressed concern Tuesday that a minor incident could signal bigger problems at how their agencies oversee dozens of waste sites at Savannah River Site.
Within the 300 square miles of the closed government facility are about 30 sites identified as containing environmentally sensitive materials. Since the U.S. Department of Energy controls access and use of the property, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gives the Energy Department more latitude than it would a private landowner.
However, the January discovery that the U.S. Forest Service had disturbed one of the sites in C Area is causing the EPA to rethink that practice.
A trench containing construction debris from the 1950s and ‘60s with low concentrations of PCBs and some metals and covered with soil was disturbed by tree planting the Forest Service does across the SRS facility. The EPA decided last year that it is safe if left alone with some signs marking it.
“Somewhere along the way, the communication between the people that do the site permits and the land-use controls and the Forest Service, who manages the forest and plants seedlings, broke down. And we’re not exactly sure where that happened,” said Robert H. Pope, manager of the EPA’s superfund division for federal facilities in Atlanta.
EPA and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control each wrote SRS officials requiring samples in the area to ensure no dangerous materials spread as a result of the disturbance. SRS has sent a draft plan for correction, which EPA and DHEC have each commented on.
“Of a greater concern is that the site-use permit process that keeps the institutional controls working and the workers safe is not broken,” Pope said. “That’s our bigger concern.”
In his 13 years supervising SRS cleanup, Pope said he’s never seen a similar violation.
He mentioned the incident Tuesday during the bi-monthly meeting of the SRS Citizens Advisory Board. He also took the opportunity to question SRS Manager Jack Craig about how much added environmental cleanup would come from the $111 million in new funding SRS expects from the administration’s budget request.
Craig didn’t initially recall any, which prompted Pope’s remark, “It is a little disconcerting for EPD not to hear that any additional resources are being put into cleanup.”
But Craig later said that about $15 million would go toward cleanup if Congress approves the president’s recommendation.