The Oak Ridge Cleanup: Protecting the Public or the Polluter?

March 2023
ELR 10188
Charles Openchowski

The Oak Ridge Reservation is one of the largest U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) facilities in the country, with areas that are highly contaminated by chemicals, metals, and radionuclides. DOE is in the middle of a multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar cleanup there, and a recent Superfund decision for one portion of the site raises a number of significant legal issues. This Article addresses some related questions: Should radionuclides get less stringent cleanup than other equally harmful pollutants like mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls? Should Bear Creek and its downstream waters, which run through the facility, get less protection than other streams designated for recreational use? Should recreational fishermen using Bear Creek and its downstream waters be exposed to greater risk? And should DOE get a better deal than other polluters? It concludes there is a clear path forward to bring the Oak Ridge cleanup in line with CERCLA, the national contingency plan, and existing EPA guidance and policy, as required by its federal facility agreement.

Charles Openchowski is a retired senior attorney in the Office of General Counsel of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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The Oak Ridge Cleanup: Protecting the Public or the Polluter?

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