The Carter administration and a western senator clashed yesterday over how much the federal government should pay to clean up uranium wastes that pose a potential cancer danger to people in mine western states.
Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) called for total federal funding in testimony before a Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee. Administration officials said the federal government should have to pay 75 percent and affected states should pay the rest.
Companies that processed uranium ore for nuclear weapons production during the 1950s and 1960s under contracts with the Atomic Energy Commission were not subject to federal regulations regarding disposal of radioactive wastes.
Several government investigations have been undertaken recently as a result of incidences of cancer among persons exposed to radioactive materials once believed harmless.
Among the high risk areas, 22 abandoned uranium mills have been identified in nine western states, where the General Accounting Office estimates that 25 millions tons of radioactive wastes remain exposed. The Department of Energy estimates it will cost $80 million to $126 million to eliminate the danger of the abandoned wastes, called "tailings."
"Since the federal government created this hazard, it is only just that the federal government should pay the full costs of its elimination," Hart told the energy production and supply subcommittee.
James L. Liverman, acting Department of Energy secretary for environment, contended that the states have an interest in the remedial efforts. States gained tax and employment benefits from the mills, so they should bear part of the hazard removal costs, he said.
Legal responsibility for the health hazard lies with the federal or individual state governments, because neither had control or regulatory authority over the contractors, some of which have since gone out of business.
A third bill, offered by Sen. Jake Gara (R-Utah) also provides for 100 percent federal funding of the cleanup, but would delay the project until after completion of a pilot program in Salt Lake City, one of the highest risk areas.
Dr. Joseph M. Hendrie, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, also testified in support of the administration bill, noting that unlike the alternatives, it provided for future monitoring of the sites by his agency.
Remedial action (covering over of the radioactive "tailings" with earth and clay) must be sufficient to prevent future escapes of radon, a radioactive gas produced by decay of the uranium wastes, Hendrie said. The risk from escaping radon could extend for thousands of years, he said.
Environmental Protective Agency spokesman William D. Rowe told the subcommittee that radon "may constitute one of the most severe radiation problems in the nation" both in extent of its effect on individuals and the number of persons affected.
Rowe supported the administration bill, which provides for EPA to set environomental standards for radioactive materials, NBC enforcement and Energy Department cleanup of the hazardous sites.