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Nuclear Sites Put Drinking Water Sources at Risk
Larry Bivins and Greg Wright
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON - Major sources of drinking water remain at risk of serious contamination from the nation's nuclear weapons complexes, despite billions in federal spending to clean up hazardous waste produced at these sites, according to a new report.

The seepage of radioactive and toxic byproducts into vital water resources pose grave health dangers to the tens of thousands of workers at these nuclear facilities, area residents and people who live dozens of miles away, authors of the report concluded.

Long-term exposure to such radioactive materials, including cesium, mercury, strontium, plutonium, trichloroethylene and uranium, could cause heart disease and cancer.

"There is an extremely serious risk around sites where there is a lot of waste and precious groundwater," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, which released the report Monday.

Based on a two-year study conducted by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a coalition of about 30 environmental, health and safety organizations, the report contends that the Department of Energy has been retreating from a commitment to clean up these sites. The department has spent an estimated $200 billion so far, the report said.

"Cleaning up the legacy of U.S. nuclear weapons production is the biggest environmental project in the nation's history, but DOE has failed to eliminate the threat of contamination to major water supplies," said Susan Gordon, the alliance's director.

The Energy Department rejected the alliance's report. A spokeswoman defended the department's cleanup efforts.

"We follow the federal and state regulatory requirements to protect the environment surrounding our sites, including groundwater safety standards," said Chris Kielich, a DOE spokeswoman. "Our sites are cleaner today because we have made dramatic progress in cleaning up our facilities under the accelerated cleanup plan."

Among the major water bodies facing the greatest threat are the Columbia River in Washington, the Clinch River in Tennessee, the Great Miami River in Ohio and the Savannah River in South Carolina, the alliance said. Ohio's Great Miami Aquifer, the Ogallala Aquifer in Texas and Idaho's Snake River Aquifer are among the underground water sources being polluted, the report said.

Kingston, Tenn.; Richland, Wash.; and Cincinnati are among the cities that rely almost exclusively on at-risk aquifers or rivers for drinking water.

"The record shows that a veritable toxic soup of contamination" has affected groundwater well beyond the boundaries of the nation's 13 weapons sites, said Marvin Resnikoff, whose firm Radioactive Waste Management Associates conducted the technical research for the study.

Vina Colley, a spokeswoman for the Portsmouth/Piketon Residents for Environmental Safety and Security in Ohio, pointed out the far-reaching impact of contamination.

"Our water goes down to Cincinnati and the Mississippi River," she said. "We're affecting everybody all over the place with this water."

A recent report found radioactive pollutants in drinking water 70 miles downstream from the Savannah River weapons site near Augusta, Ga., and Aiken, S.C., said Lou Zeller, director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, which keeps track of cleanup at the site.

In Idaho, about 270,000 people depend solely on the Snake River Aquifer, considered "literally the lifeblood of Southern Idaho's economy," said Jeremy Maxand, director of the Snake River Alliance, which monitors the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

Maxand pointed to the Energy Department's appeal of a federal court order barring its plan to leave radioactive waste in storage tanks above major water resources in Idaho, New York, South Carolina and Washington as one example of the department backing away from cleanup obligations.

"Our government made this mess," Maxand said. "Our government must clean it up - completely."

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