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A worker at K-25 Plant Oak Ridge Tennessee in 1945. // Ed Wescott, U.S. Department of Energy/National Park Service via Tennessee Lookout

Environmental Protection Agency sued over Tennessee landfill for radioactive waste

Suit by environmental alleges toxic runoff could infiltrate waterways


By Anita Wadhwani

The Environmental Protection Agency is illegally withholding records that could shed light on why it approved plans by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to build a radioactive waste landfill over the objections of senior government officials, an environmental group claims.

The landfill serves as a receptacle for remnants of decades-old low-level radioactive waste from  the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. The landfill’s location – on a Superfund site near scenic local waterways – raised contamination concerns among officials within the EPA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler nevertheless approved the plan, which required waiving Clean Water Act rules, in the waning days of the Trump Administration — a decision upheld by his Biden Administration successor, Michael Regan.

Now, according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) advocacy group, holdover EPA officials from the prior administration are responsible for illegally denying its Freedom of Information Act requests related to Wheeler’s decision for nearly a year.

"Superfund aims to clean up toxic hot spots, not create more of them. The core issue is that Superfund cleanups must be done in accordance with, not in violation of, the Clean Water Act." — Tim Whitehouse, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility

The agency is “frustrating (PEER’s) efforts to adequately understand and educate the public regarding EPA actions and policies” that guided the landfill decision, a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month in the District of Columbia said. The suit is seeking a court order releasing thousands of records related to the Oak Ridge landfill.

An EPA spokesperson said Thursday that the agency does not comment on pending litigation. The Department of Energy did not respond to questions from the Tennessee Lookout.

The decision to create a landfill that could leak potentially toxic runoff into northeast Tennessee streams and creeks has raised broader concerns.

The Department of Energy, which operates the Oak Ridge site, has indicated they intend to pursue similar waivers of the Clean Water Act at a Superfund site in Paducah, Kentucky.

“Superfund aims to clean up toxic hot spots, not create more of them,” said Tim Whitehouse, a former senior EPA enforcement attorney who now serves as PEER’s director. “The core issue is that Superfund cleanups must be done in accordance with, not in violation of, the Clean Water Act.”

The EPA division housing Superfund has not had a leader under the Biden Administration because the Senate has not confirmed one, “leaving the program in the hands of holdover staff,” he said.

EPA staff who prepared briefing material for Regan, the Biden Administration chief who upheld his predecessor’s decision to green-light the landfill, suspect that the concerns they raised did not make it through those holdover senior staff, the advocacy group said.

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.

Now more than ever, tough and fair journalism is important. The Tennessee Lookout is your watchdog, telling the stories of politics and policy that affect the people of the Volunteer State.

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