TEXAS--State Faults US on Solvent Leak, Officials Probe Delay in Reporting Levels Near Nuclear Arms Plant

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State faults U.S. on solvent leak

Officials probe delay in reporting levels near Amarillo nuclear arms plant

03/15/2000 Associated Press

AUSTIN - The U.S. Department of Energy failed to properly notify state officials about a solvent leak into the groundwater near the federal government's Pantex weapons facility, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission said Tuesday.

State officials sent a notice of enforcement to the Energy Department on Tuesday outlining how the agency should respond to the leak.

So far, the solvent doesn't appear to threaten nearby Amarillo's drinking water, said Brad Jones, the commission's regional director in the city.

Unacceptable levels of the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, were detected in groundwater near Pantex in May, Mr. Jones said.

But the Energy Department, which is primarily responsible for monitoring the area, did not report the leak to state officials until March 2, Mr. Jones said.

"Their permit requires that they notify any noncompliance within 24 hours verbally, then follow with a written notification in 10 working days," he said.

The Energy Department is already investigating to learn how the TCE levels went unreported until March, said Brenda Finley, public affairs officer for the federal agency's Amarillo office.

"We're looking at the reporting process itself to make sure it doesn't happen again. Our concern is why it wasn't caught by the people who were reading the report," Ms. Finley said.

Last week, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced that his department would investigate the problem. Inspectors from the department's office of environmental safety and health will visit the facility to see if procedures were followed.

The spill marks the first time contaminants from the Pantex plant have reached the Ogallala Aquifer. The May water sample from the Ogallala showed TCE levels at 8 parts per billion, which exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency's standard of 5 ppb for drinking water.

State officials also called for the federal government to determine how far the solvent has spread in the aquifer and to develop a cleanup strategy.

"If left unchecked, it could spread a considerable distance," Mr. Jones said, "but we're not seeing it in any of the other wells."

Amarillo officials have tested water from the city's well field, a mile northeast of the contaminated well, but found no TCE in the drinking water, Mr. Jones said.

Once the Energy Department has measured how far the contamination has spread, it could pump water out of the aquifer to clean it or use chemicals to get rid of the solvent, Mr. Jones said.

The Pantex plant is part of the Energy Department's complex of nuclear weapons facilities. Its primary function is to dismantle nuclear warheads and to store plutonium "pits" from dismantled weapons.

The contractor that runs the plant, Mason & Hanger Corp., has provided drinking water to three families living near Pantex. Ms. Finley said the Energy Department had not decided whether to take action against the contractor.

Energy Department representatives will answer questions about the leak in a public meeting Wednesday night in Panhandle, Texas, about 10 miles from Amarillo.


-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 15, 2000

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