Source: Knoxville News Sentinel | Brittany Crocker and Tyler Whetstone | November 20, 2017
Officials from the Department of Energy and cleanup contractor URS|CH2M (UCOR) huddled inside a tent inside the Y-12 National Security Complex Monday morning to break ground on the long-awaited mercury treatment facility.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, both R-Tenn., and Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette attended the event.
The facility will take years and millions of dollars to complete, but once finished, will allow for old, contaminated buildings to be torn down safely.
Cleaning out the mercury
During the Cold War, Y-12 used mercury to separate lithium isotopes. Mercury flowed through pumps, pipes, valves and seals at high rates and sometimes dripped or spilled out. Pipe maintenance may also have introduced mercury into the environment.
UCOR has estimated about 240,000 pounds of mercury were released from Y-12 directly to the Upper East Fork Poplar Creek from 1950 to 1982. The contractor estimates about 2 million pounds of mercury were lost to the environment.
Mercury contamination is present in many of the old, deteriorating buildings at Y-12.
Jay Mullis, acting manager for the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management, estimated that somewhere between 50-100 high-risk buildings that are considered contaminated will be torn down after the treatment facility is constructed.
“What we have found is as we disturb the soil here and tear buildings down, it will cause a large amount of mercury (to enter) the creek … this allows us to capture that,” Mullis said about the facility.
Sen. Alexander, who is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, said the project was a long time coming.
“There’s a lot of mercury in the old buildings here and in the ground,” he said. “And we don’t want to begin to tear those buildings down and get rid of the mercury until we make absolutely sure that it doesn’t run into the water that affects the people who live in this area.”
Alexander said mercury levels filtering into Upper East Fork Poplar Creek has long concerned him. The new facility will take care of that concern, he said.
“It’s a major step forward to get rid of something that could be harmful that we need to address,” he said.
On hot days, mercury in the soil at Y-12 is still released into the air as mercury vapor, which poses a risk to the health of workers and the public.
Mercury also leaves the plant in groundwater and stormwater through the storm drain network, which deposits it into the East Fork Poplar Creek outfall. Fish in the creek have mercury levels too high for human consumption. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency also advises against physical contact with the water.
Largemouth bass in parts of the Clinch River and Watts Bar reservoir have shown similarly elevated mercury levels.
The Department of Energy anticipates the facility will reduce mercury levels in the water by as much as 84 percent. Greater reductions can be achieved by adding unit operations or storage tanks to the facility, which was designed to be easily modified.
In late September, UCOR awarded a $1.4 million contract to Knoxville-based GEM Technologies to begin site prep work for the treatment facility. The work will take about a year, according to UCOR, and the facility’s construction will kick off afterward.
The facility construction is part of UCOR’s “Vision 2024,” to prepare Y-12 for the demolition of contaminated excess facilities. Ken Rueter, the contractor’s president, told the News Sentinel in July that the facility will be operating before demolition begins