At the announcement of a new facility to deal with mercury at Oak Ridge, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tn.) on Friday called mercury contamination “one of the biggest problems we have from the Cold War era” and said it must be a top priority as cleanup resources become available.
Senator Alexander’s remarks came at a press conference announcing plans for a water treatment facility at the head of the East Fork Poplar Creek. The facility would head off future mercury contamination, which can cause brain and nervous system damage in people who eat contaminated fish. He joined officials with the State of Tennessee, Oak Ridge and U.S. Department of Energy, and pressed for more cleanup resources in the future to go toward existing mercury contamination, as problems like radioactive waste improve.
“This water treatment plant is a major step in addressing one of the biggest problems we have from the Cold War era – mercury once used to make nuclear weapons getting into our waterways,” Senator Alexander said. “As we finish other cleanup priorities, like cleaning up radioactive waste at the East Tennessee Technology Park, we need to strengthen our commitment to dealing with the mercury that’s already gotten into waterways at Oak Ridge.”
The treatment building announced today will filter water to prevent further mercury contamination, and Senator Alexander wants to also address existing contamination. The cleanup project at East Tennessee Technology Park has involved hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars to deal with radioactive material by tearing down the K-25 and K-27 buildings.
K-25 is now almost completely demolished, and preparation is underway to do the same with K-27. Alexander, the lead Republican or Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, said that as more progress is made on the radioactive waste problem, more of the $394 million the president has budgeted for cleanup efforts should go toward mercury.
The mercury arrived at the facilities at Oak Ridge during the 1950s and 1960s as the United States built up its nuclear arms. About 200,000 gallons, enough to fill about 24 gasoline tank trucks, eventually arrived. About 18,000 gallons, enough to fill two gasoline tankers, have been lost to the environment or are otherwise unaccounted for at this point. Doctors have shown that mercury contamination – often passed to humans through the consumption of contaminated fish – can cause severe brain and nervous system damage, especially in unborn children.
Senator Alexander said, “We have children who want to pick crawdads out of Poplar Creek and Tennesseans of all ages who want to eat the fish, but they’re warned off by signs because of dangerous mercury levels. We need to make cleanup of existing mercury contamination at the facilities at Oak Ridge a top priority in the future.”