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U.S. groups win landmark nuclear weapons "cleanup" victory

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 18, 1998) To settle a lawsuit brought by 39 environmental and peace organizations, the US's Department of Energy (DOE) signed a landmark agreement which would increase public oversight of its efforts to address severe contamination problems in the nation's nuclear weapons complex.

(504.4961) CAREs - The settlement, which was delivered to Federal District Court Judge Stanley Sporkin on December 14, ends nine years of litigation charging that the DOE failed to develop its "cleanup" plans properly. The DOE had faced a contempt of court hearing before Judge Sporkin for not complying with a previous legal agreement in the case. "From the perspective of protecting the nation's water, air and land, this settlement is superior to the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement the DOE originally agreed to prepare," said David Adelman, a Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer who represented the plaintiffs. "We now have the data, the resources and the processes necessary to make the DOE's environmental work more accountable to the public." The Washington, D.C., law firm of Meyer & Glitzenstein provided pro bono litigation counsel.

Key elements of the settlement include:

  • Creation of a regularly updated, publicly accessible database including details about contaminated facilities and waste generated or controlled by the DOE's cleanup, defense, science and nuclear energy programs, including domestic and foreign research reactor spent fuel, listing characteristics such as waste type, volume, and radioactivity, as well as transfer and disposition plans.
  • DOE funding for at least two national stakeholder forums to assure that the database is comprehensive, accurate and useful.
  • Completion of an environmental analysis, with public input, of plans for "long-term stewardship" at contaminated DOE sites to ensure protection of the public and the environment.
  • Establishment of a $6.25-million fund for non-profit groups and tribes to use in monitoring DOE environmental activities and conducting technical reviews of the agency's performance.
  • Payment of plaintiffs' legal fees and expenses incurred to litigate this case.
  • Continuing federal court oversight to assure adherence to the agreement.

"I'm really excited! This is a major victory both for the environment and for public participation," said Marylia Kelley, of Tri-Valley CAREs in Livermore, California, one of 39 plaintiff groups. "We have won access to the tools the public needs to monitor the DOE's compliance with the nation's obligation to address the radioactive and toxic legacy of nuclear weapons production." The DOE's "cleanup" program is slated to become the largest environmental project in US history, with an estimated total cost of more than US$250 billion.
"Since the mid-1980s we've been asking for a breakdown of DOE-generated waste by program and facility," added Jackie Cabasso of Oakland's Western States Legal Foundation, a plaintiff and communications coordinator for the lawsuit. "DOE is currently gearing up its nuclear weapons research and development activities--the same kinds of activities that created this environmental disaster. Now, for the first time, using the DOE's own data, we'll be able to demonstrate the link between cause and effect, a powerful argument against any further nuclear weapons design and production."

Many of the groups first sued the DOE in 1989, claiming that the agency must conduct a thorough analysis before moving ahead with plans to address the radioactive and toxic legacy of nuclear weapons production and modernize its facilities. The next year, the DOE signed a legal agreement promising a full public review of its proposals. In 1994, however, DOE leaders decided to abandon the Environmental Restoration Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement process without consent of the plaintiffs or Federal Court Judge Sporkin, who had approved the initial settlement. In April 1997, plaintiffs went back to Judge Sporkin seeking enforcement of the original agreement.
In a series of court hearings, Judge Sporkin made it clear that he expected the DOE to abide by its commitments. Earlier this year, he ordered the DOE to "show cause" why it should not be held in contempt for failing to conduct the environmental analysis. In depositions taken by the plaintiffs, former Energy Secretary James Watkins and other former senior DOE officials strongly backed plaintiffs claims. The discussions which led to this settlement were conducted at Judge Sporkin's urging.

Source: Press release of plaintiffs, 14 December 1998
Contact: Marylia Kelley, Tri-Valley CAREs (925) 443-7148