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State sues over cleanup of nuclear waste

The state-federal partnership that led to a landmark nuclear waste cleanup in Cattaraugus County fractured Monday as the state sued the U.S. Department of Energy, alleging the agency is not living up to its end of the deal.

In a lawsuit filed in federal district court, three state agencies say the Department of Energy is not following the 1980 West Valley Demonstration Project Act, which called for the decontamination of the former nuclear fuel reprocessing site 30 miles south of Buffalo.

The suit was jointly announced by Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, and the man who will replace him Jan. 1, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat.

"From our perspective, it shows the resolve of the Pataki administration and the new administration," said Peter R. Smith, president of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the DOE's partner at West Valley and one of the lawsuit plaintiffs.

The site was built in the 1960s as the first commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the country before being abandoned in 1972.

Under the 1980 law, the DOE and the state Energy Research and Development Authority used pioneering technology to solidify 600,000 gallons of high-level radioactive liquid waste, which was held in rotting underground tanks, into glass logs.

After that process was completed, the two sides argued over who was responsible for the rest of the cleanup.

In response to the lawsuit, DOE spokeswoman Megan Barnett issued a statement saying the department "remains committed to fulfilling our legal commitments under the West Valley Demonstration Act."

Who has what responsibilities under the act is one of the things the state is asking U.S. District Court in Buffalo to clarify. The DOE maintains it has met most of its obligations and will work toward meeting the rest.

"The Department of Energy has spent over $2 billion to clean up the West Valley site, which was owned, operated and managed by the State of New York and its private contractor when the wastes that are being cleaned up were created," Barnett's statement read. But the state maintains that the federal government urged the state to build the site and supplied the reprocessing technology and much of the waste.

The state believes that under the act and other federal laws, the DOE should complete a comprehensive cleanup that would include removal of the rotting underground tanks, decontamination of the building where the logs are stored and cleaning of the contaminated plume of groundwater.

"We read [the law] in a manner that says the DOE must take care of all the site, not just where they vitrified waste," Smith said.

The lawsuit also seeks to have the federal government made liable for the release of hazardous materials into the environment, compensate the state for cleaning up past and future releases and pay the estimated $250 million cost of placing the logs in a federal repository.

Judy Einach, project director for the citizen watchdog group Coalition on West Valley Nuclear Wastes, said she "absolutely understands why NYSERDA has to take the action that it is taking." Proposed federal legislation that would have turned the site over to the DOE and forced a complete cleanup was never acted on by the last Congress, but its sponsor, Rep. John R. "Randy" Kuhl Jr., R-Hammondsport, will reintroduce it in the new Congress, according to his spokesman, Bob Van Wicklin.

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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