Originally created 07/11/97

Georgia officials say SRS ignores local needs



First they were in the dark for hours about a nuclear alarm at Savannah River Site.

Then Georgia state officials learned that money for environmental monitoring in counties adjacent to the nuclear plant was getting cut.

Last week, they took their complaints to Energy Secretary Federico Pena in Washington.

In a July 2 letter, Georgia Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Lonice Barrett and Harold Reheis, director of the state Environmental Protection Division, accused SRS of being insensitive to their state's needs.

"Since the SRS production reactors ceased operations, DOE's prevailing philosophy seems to be that it is impossible for a radiological incident to adversely affect public health, safety and the environment. This belief is not shared by the general public in Georgia," they wrote.

"Given the dangerous nature of the large amounts of radioactive material stored at SRS...we strongly oppose any reductions in independent oversight, environmental monitoring and emergency preparedness."

They also reminded the secretary of the delay in notifying state officials of a June 25 alarm at SRS that sent 2,000 employees into shelter. There was never a radioactive release, but SRS has agreed to notify both Georgia and South Carolina in case of an unusual event.

"This incident is just the latest in a recurring pattern in which notifications ... have been either inaccurate, untimely, or both," Mr. Barrett and Mr. Reheis wrote.

Energy Department spokesman Rick Ford said SRS' top priority continues to be safety for workers, the public and the environment.

"We can certainly discuss how much money it takes to make sure that commitment is achieved," he said. "But it remains our commitment."

Although the nuclear reactors were shut down years ago, small amounts of radioactivity continue to leak from SRS to neighboring counties. Using federal funds, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has been tracking such contaminants in the river, the air, and in local crops and milk.

But tight fiscal times at SRS - and what appears to be poor communication between the plant and the state - have unexpectedly put most environmental monitoring on hold this summer.

Georgia officials say they expected the program to get enough money to last through September. But on June 30, Jim Hardeman got word money was running out the next day.

"I'm out of money for this three-month period," Mr. Hardeman, manager for EPD's environmental radiation program, said Thursday. "All environmental monitoring that we've added since 1992 has been suspended through September."

That means water monitoring stations on the Savannah River where Mr. Hardeman's staffers have been taking samples every month won't be checked but quarterly, he said.

Four air monitoring stations in Richmond and Burke counties and one in Savannah will be shut down. The remaining six will be checked once a month instead of every two weeks.

And as farmers get ready to harvest their crops, there will be nobody checking their products for traces of tritium, Mr. Hardeman said.

Mr. Ford said SRS was unable to allocate additional funds for the program when made aware of the budget crunch a couple of months ago.