UNTIL recently, the "make the polluter pay" principle applied to everybody in the United States - except for one of the biggest polluters, the federal government. Now, thanks to long-overdue legislation just passed in Congress, Uncle Sam will have to take full responsibility for violating federal, state, and local environmental protection laws, just like everybody else.
The bill says the Pentagon and the Energy Department (which makes nuclear weapons) must obey all hazardous waste laws. The Environmental Protection Agency will have enforcement power, including stiff fines, and state enforcers can levy fines too. State officials also will now have the right to inspect federal facilities suspected of violations, and private citizens can file civil suits.
"The days of the double standard are over," said Republican lawmaker Dan Schaefer of Colorado, the bill's co-author. "We cannot ask private industry to comply with environmental laws when the federal government itself does not comply. And the government in many cases is much more of a polluter."
It's not only a matter of political fairness.
Democrat Dennis Eckart of Ohio (one of Schaefer's partners in writing the bill) says, "We need to make sure that the neighbors living near a federal facility know that it will be operating as safely and cleanly as any other facility in their backyard."
The two lawmakers' home states have a lot of interest in the new law. They are home to weapons facilities at Rocky Flats (Colorado) and Fernald (Ohio), two of several sites around the country where highly radioactive materials are produced, processed, or assembled into weapons of mass destruction. There are 15 major sites in 13 states.
The law also covers chemical weapons production and storage facilities, where much of the country's aging gas warfare arsenal sits awaiting disposal under recent arms control agreements. But it is the cold-war-era nuclear plants that are of most concern, especially the massive Hanford complex in Washington State, which accounts for 63 percent of all the Energy Department's high-level radioactive waste by volume (37 percent by radioactivity).
Hanford sprawls over 560 square miles along the Columbia River. Concrete buildings, tank farms, and pipelines dot tawny, rolling hills. It's quiet now that the nuclear-fuel-processing facilities have all ceased to operate. But underground is a cauldron of radioactive solids and liquids, solvents, heavy metals, and acids. Some are contained in buried storage facilities, but these have leaked over the years and even the double-shelled tanks are past their design life. The stuff has worked its way into the water table, moving steadily toward the Columbia.
The Washington State Department of Ecology recently notified the US Department of Energy (DOE) that state waste laws are being violated. "We are concerned about the general lack of attention," said one state official. Sonja Anderson, a chemical engineer at Hanford, warned congressionl investigators earlier this year that a catastrophic radioactive explosion could happen. Federal officials disagree with that scenario, but everybody knows the problem is enormous.
Energy Secretary James Watkins says cleaning up the mess will be an "immense job." Construction work on new storage and treatment facilities is underway at Hanford, but it's likely to be as costly and lengthy as the cold war itself; 30 years and at least $57 billion are the official estimates.
Meanwhile, it's clear that government contractors may have been worse than negligent in operating federal weapons plants. Rockwell International Corporation earlier this year agreed to pay $18.5 million in fines in a plea bargain involving environmental violations at the Rocky Flats plant. It was reported last week that members of the grand jury in the case had wanted to indict several company and DOE officials on criminal charges, but the US Justice Department said there was insufficient evidence.
The new law is a good thing, but much of the cost and danger could have been avoided if environmental considerations were considered in the first place. As Rep. Al Swift (D) of Washington says, "If the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy had been complying with the law, environmental disasters like the Hanford reservation might never have happened."