The U.S. Energy Department was so lax in dealing with dangerous radioactive debris left over from Cold War bomb-making at the Savannah River Site and other federally-owned nuclear weapons facilities that in the early 1990s the agency set a series of cleanup deadlines it promised to meet.
Many of the deadlines were arrived at via negotiations with the state of South Carolina and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and were sanctioned by the courts. Guess what? None of the most significant deadlines has been met.
Time and again during the Clinton era - and now into the Bush II era - the agency asked for and received extensions. And it's always for the same reason: belt-tightening budget cuts. Congress just won't come up with enough money to get the job done.
That's absurd. DOE's proposed budget for fiscal 2002 is $19.2 billion. Somewhere in that sum, there must be money for the agency to meet at least some of its oft-delayed deadlines. It's all a matter of priorities.
Where does the agency prefer to put its money - in glitzy new science and technology programs that catch the nation's fancy or in tired, old nuclear cleanup projects that interest no one outside the cleanup areas?
The DOE is like a homeowner who ignores flooding in his basement and leaks in his roof to put in an elaborate, eye-catching patio. This is reflected in DOE's $5.9 billion environmental management budget proposal which is down about 3 percent from last year - including $150 million cut in SRS cleanup funds.
Again, as it did last year and the years before, DOE is preparing to ask for more deadline delays. That's what the letters new Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham is having sent to Gov. Jim Hodges and the EPA requesting a "dialogue" are all about.
The Federal Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, created by Congress to advise DOE on safety and environmental issues, and the SRS Citizens Advisory Board, a regional panel linked to public and private sectors throughout the region, were rightfully outraged at last year's delays. They have reason to be even more upset this year.
The issue here isn't about jobs or the economy, although they are important; it's really about health and safety, both of the people who work at the site and those who live near it.
Endless cleanup delays indicate the feds want to just walk away and forget the Cold War's nuclear weapons muck. And they will, too, unless their feet are held to the fire.
However mundane and boring it may be, environmental cleanup should be DOE's No. 1 priority. And one of Secretary Abraham's top priorities should be to visit the weapons sites that his budget is slashing cleanup money for.
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