The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Thursday, 26 January 2023 14:42

Potentially toxic Oak Ridge landfill won’t be built until cleared by operator’s water research

Written by

Image of historic Elza Entrance signage

Potential water runoff issues stall future Oak Ridge landfill construction

OAK RIDGE — A landfill intended to hold potentially toxic debris from the demolition of legacy Oak Ridge research facilities is moving forward but construction won’t start until it is definitively determined whether the site could pollute ground and surface water.

As reported previously by Hellbenderpress, environmentalists fear toxins leaking out of the proposed landfill could contaminate waterways and make their way into fish that people might catch downstream. The landfill’s contractor, however, said leaving buildings full of toxic residue standing may be more dangerous for workers and nearby residents and the landfill will help get the buildings quickly demolished. The contractor is doing a mock-up study this year to see how best to handle water issues on the future landfill site.

This summer, the contractor United Cleanup Oak Ridge LLC will choose a subcontractor and do field work. Ben Williams, the Department of Energy’s public affairs specialist, said roads and utilities will need to move to get the site ready at that time. But UCOR stated it won’t build the landfill until after a water study spanning “two wet seasons,” beginning later this year. 

The DOE, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) signed a Record of Decision in September 2022, allowing for the landfill to move ahead. Documents on UCOR’s website discuss aspects of the landfill, and officials talked with the public at a recent meeting.

Oak Ridge is home to multiple federal nuclear research facilities. They date back to uranium enrichment for the nuclear weapons dropped on Japan at the end of World War II. The U.S. Department of Energy now runs several sites in the city. Oak Ridge National Laboratory still hosts research, and the Y-12 National Security Complex still maintains weapons.

Crews are demolishing some older buildings at ORNL and Y-12. UCOR on its website claims Oak Ridge has “more high-risk contaminated facilities” than any other site for the DOE. UCOR argues that the new landfill “allows DOE to address and remove existing hazards at the Y-12 National Security Complex and Oak Ridge National Laboratory — reducing risks to residents and workers in Oak Ridge.”

UCOR, at an earlier meeting and on its website stated that the estimated 1.6-million cubic yards of demolition waste and soils won’t include the most toxic stuff, which DOE plans to ship to other locations.

While doing nothing and leaving the old buildings exposed may pose risks, the landfill plan has faced criticism and comments from environmental groups, individuals and regulators centering around water pollution. They’ve been discussing the risks of waste seeping into groundwater, the water that rocks and soil hold, and what might happen when that groundwater gets into streams for years.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), a nonprofit with headquarters in Charlottesville but an office in Nashville sent a letter in November 2021 to the EPA, warning of “high groundwater concentrations” near the site. It also expressed concerns about what might happen in wet weather as Oak Ridge’s local newspaper, The Oak Ridger as reported. Several residents of the Oak Ridge area also signed the letter.

The letter stated an existing, similar landfill DOE has used for debris has suffered from similar problems, letting out “thousands of gallons of untreated wastewater containing radionuclides and other hazardous pollutants.”

This statement is in keeping with one from EPA Acting Regional Administrator Mary Walker in March of 2019, stating the existing landfill was “currently discharging waste with hazardous substances into Bear Creek.”

The DOE, however, has spoken positively of its track record with the current landfill stating, “For more than 15 years, Oak Ridge employees have safely operated the current facility without negatively impacting human health or the environment.”

Amanda Garcia, director of the SELC’s Tennessee office, explained to The Oak Ridger she worried about bigger fish from the Clinch River eating smaller fish from Bear Creek, which might carry contamination. The SELC’s letter warned about this contamination affecting “fishing practices of nearby low-wealth Latino communities."

Earlier in 2019, TDEC also criticized the plans for the future landfill as they existed at that time, also focusing like the EPA and SELC on water contamination risk.

UCOR’s website describes a study to address these groundwater issues. It will involve building a groundwater field testing facility with ditches and detention areas built like those at a full-sized landfill. It would also have a cover system to stop rainfall from coming in. Williams said the water test stage won’t involve holding any waste.

UCOR on its website promotes the different covers and liners it plans to use for the eventual landfill, meant to keep rainwater out and groundwater away from the debris.

Still, Oak Ridge’s environmentalists such as Virginia Dale, executive board member of Advocates for Oak Ridge Reservation criticized UCOR and DOE’s landfill plans even after attending the recent meeting.

“It is frustrating to have asked the same questions over and over again and not gotten answers to them,” she said regarding questions that she and others asked. She still had concerns about how rainfall will affect the landfill and criticized the lack of specific standards for the waste the landfill would accept. She lamented the decision to invest in getting the site ready for waste rather than looking more at options for shipping it to another location.

“I’m very disappointed that it got approved,” Sandra Goss, executive director of Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning said in an interview. She and Dale are both Oak Ridge residents. “I’m very sorry for the individuals that are going to come after us and deal with the results of that facility being installed there.”

Rate this item
(1 Vote)
Last modified on Wednesday, 03 January 2024 00:50