U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) Tuesday questioned Ernest Moniz, President Obama's nominee to head the Department of Energy, about making cleanup of mercury contamination at the facilities at Oak Ridge a priority.
"One of the biggest cleanup problems we have from the Cold War era is mercury contamination of waterways in Oak Ridge," Alexander said, asking Mr. Moniz whether he would "agree that mercury cleanup should be a priority" and to support a planned water treatment facility.
Alexander questioned Moniz at a hearing of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which Alexander is a member. The senator was referring to about 200,000 gallons of mercury that arrived at Oak Ridge's Y12 site during the 1950s and 1960s, when the United States was developing nuclear weapons as a defense against the Soviet Union.
Doctors have established that mercury causes brain and nervous system damage, particularly for unborn children, and Alexander highlighted the fact that fish contaminated by mercury in places such as the East Fork Poplar Creek and other waterways has become an area health concern. Of the 200,000 gallons that arrived at Oak Ridge, about 18,000 gallons are unaccounted for or known to be lost to the environment -- in some cases seeping into soil and water.
The senator said it "will cost billions" of dollars to clean up the mercury, and asked Moniz whether he agreed that "a good, temporary strategy would be to build a facility at the head of the creek where most of the contaminated water is" to intercept and clean the water. Moniz replied that he would look into the details of the plan, but said that "clearly protecting the health and safety of our citizens is paramount."