Energy Department wins first `award' for governmental polluters

It probably won't send environmental regulators running for cover. But it's doubtful that membership in the ``Environmental Hall of Shame'' is a distinction that will be cherished by many bureaucrats. In an effort to win ongoing attention for environmental concerns, two legislators have inaugurated a new award to spotlight federal agencies whose actions lead to environmental problems.

The ``Globerotter,'' a newly created award, was given yesterday to the Department of Energy (DOE) for what the award's sponsors called the department's ``callous disregard of the environment.''

Award sponsors Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada and Rep. Mel Levine (D) of California highlighted plutonium leaks at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory near Idaho Falls. ``Tests indicate [radioactive waste] has been found 240 feet below the surface, almost halfway to an underground water reservoir,'' Senator Reid said at a news conference announcing the award.

In addition, scientists and researchers say, DOE is responsible for pumping hazardous waste into the Snake River aquifer, potentially contaminating the river and its arteries. There has been no such pumping since 1984, says Dr. Marvin Resnikoff of the Radioactive Waste Campaign in New York. But the pre-1984 pumping ``has contaminated the aquifer.''

DOE spokesmen say the department has complied with all applicable laws and regulations. ``According to environmental standards (before 1984), we were in compliance,'' says DOE's Chris Sankey. ``Of course, current standards are stiffer. We are pursuing an aggressive program to remedy all our environmental concerns....''

A DOE report issued last month estimates that cleaning up environmental contamination at DOE's defense-related sites nationwide will cost between $40 billion and $70 billion. A report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) puts the figure as high as $175 billion. Currently, the government spends about $1 billion a year on cleanup efforts. Congress will have to provide more money, Sankey says.

Reid has been criticized in his home state for not opposing strongly enough a plan to put the nation's first high-level nuclear waste repository there. The nuclear dump is slated for construction at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles outside of Las Vegas.

The booby prize of environmental advocates in Congress resembles, in spirit, the perennial ``Golden Fleece'' award conceived by now-retiring Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin to spotlight instances of government waste and mismanagement.

Asked when the next ``Globerotter'' award would be announced, Reid said he didn't know. ``That has to be kind of inspirational,'' he said.

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