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environmental cleanup

Not a crisis, just a slow news day

Oak Ridge is a place where unusual and interesting things happen. No one knows that better than the area news media who know they can use a ho-hum story from Oak Ridge to create an attention-grabbing headline on a slow news day.

The week after Christmas is slow news time, and Tuesday’s Knoxville top newspaper headline was “Radioactivity lingers at Oak Ridge sewer plant.” A crisis? No! Revelation of an environmental cover-up? Not!

Rather, Frank Munger’s article tells about a situation that has existed for over a year, wasn’t kept secret, isn’t a health threat, and is under control (although it’s not fully resolved yet). It makes a scary headline that helps sell papers and is likely to convince a few people not to move here, but the actual story is pretty dull. And there’s no reason for public concern.

So how did radioactive material get into our city sewers?

It didn’t. This radioactive material isn’t in the city sewer system. It got into the sewer pipes at the former K-25 Site (ETTP). Sewage from the K-25 Site now goes to the City of Oak Ridge’s satellite wastewater treatment plant at Rarity Ridge. DOE’s K-25 site is now one of the City’s sewage treatment customers.

During the ongoing cleanup of the K-25 Site, some radioactive material leaked from the soil into cracks in the old sewer lines under the K-25 Site. (DOE thought they had sealed off the pipes, but subsequent events revealed that the sealing wasn’t 100% effective.)

The radioactive material (the isotope technetium-99) ended up in the Rarity Ridge wastewater plant where it got attached to the solid material in the sewage sludge.

Isn’t radioactive sewage sludge dangerous?

Well, you definitely shouldn’t eat it, but you shouldn’t eat normal sewage sludge either. This isn’t “hot sludge,” contrary to the words a creative headline writer used in a subtitle on Frank Munger’s article. The level of radioactivity is too low to be a danger for workers or the public. But  sewage sludge contaminated with technetium (which has a very long half-life) isn’t allowed in Tennessee landfills.

To comply with the law, for over a year DOE has been hauling Rarity Ridge sewage sludge to Richland, Washington, for disposal — all at DOE expense.

Is Rarity Ridge contaminated?

No. This has absolutely nothing to do with the residential community there — now known as The Preserve at Clinch River.

What is the City doing to put a stop to this?

Um, nothing. Actually, DOE and the City are cooperating, and this is DOE’s problem, not the City’s. DOE is taking full responsibility and is bearing all of the costs. DOE has made changes at ETTP to make sure this won’t happen again, but they haven’t yet succeeded in clearing all of the radioactivity out of the sludge. Until that happens, they’ll continue to take sludge to Washington.

In summary, this has been an annoyance for DOE and for City personnel, but it’s temporary, it’s not a secret, there is no health and safety risk, and there’s no cost for the City of Oak Ridge. Just one of those unusual and interesting stories about Oak Ridge, and it helped fill a newspaper on a slow news day.

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What we don’t understand can hurt us

Disposition of uranium-233 has been an issue for DOE in Oak Ridge for a number of years. Now the New York Times has an article about challenges in getting rid of U-233. The article only minimally mentions the challenges that exist at the ORNL facility, where the U-233 is now, but what the article discusses has implications for Oak Ridge.

Since this is a fissile material that could be used for weapons, criticality safety and safeguards/security are major factors in managing it — and have been absorbing some of the money that otherwise would be spent on environmental cleanup of the DOE sites in Oak Ridge. The stuff is also radiologically hot (due to radioactive progeny formed by decay of U-233), which makes its removal and processing far more complicated — and expensive.

At one time, many of us hoped that thorium-229, a medically useful isotope formed by radioactive decay of U-233, would be extracted from the U-233 stockpile for use in treating patients. The idea of using this material to save lives was scrapped due to  complexities of maintaining safety when processing the material and by Congressional action that barred DOE from attempting it. Two years ago, in an environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact, DOE announced that it would blend the U-233 with nonfissile “depleted” uranium (U-238) and dispose of the blended material underground in a licensed facility, such as at the Nevada Test Site. Now the Times article says DOE no longer plans to “downblend” (I recall hearing rumblings of this change), but would instead would be solidified in a ceramic form before disposal — and critics are saying that’s not safe enough.

While controversy continues, the project is providing good jobs in Oak Ridge, but its cost means that other projects that would benefit the community in the long term are being delayed — and the safety/security concerns are sitting here in our backyard instead of at a remote site out west. After the recent breach at Y-12, I believe we are all more aware of these things than we had been in recent years. (I see that Frank Munger touched on this recently.)

Recognizing and understanding these types of issues is a continuing need and challenge. What we don’t understand can hurt us, and we can’t depend on the Department of Energy to look out for the local community if we don’t look out for ourselves. (I miss the Local Oversight Committee!)

Added September 25: Frank Munger’s blog now includes an item about the report that led to the NY Times article.

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One mystery solved

Now I know why Bethel Valley Road was blocked last Tuesday when I was trying to drive into Oak Ridge from my office to attend the League of Women Voters luncheon. From Frank Munger’s blog, I learned that the two military helicopters that flew in low over my head and landed somewhere ahead of me were ferrying some top military brass to ORNL for a briefing.

I eventually made it to the LWV luncheon (late) by turning around and driving the “back way” into Oak Ridge, and heard Steve Stow (a former colleague) at ORNL discuss long-term stewardship for the “environmental legacy” conditions on the Oak Ridge Reservation. Having been engaged with the topic  of stewardship for a number of years, I’m glad I managed to get there (in spite of the helicopters), as it reminded me of a number of unresolved issues and I got to hear people’s questions and comments.

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LOC R.I.P.

I’ve been trying to let the Local Oversight Committee (LOC) rest in peace and not to dwell on the matter, but I continually find myself dealing with fallout from the demise of the LOC. It was terminated once and for all last Monday afternoon (January 9). This was the fourth in a series of “special called meetings” of the LOC Board that began in early September of last year at the behest of Roane County Executive Ron Woody and Anderson County Mayor Myron Iwanski. I wasn’t at the table this time, as Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan had removed me from my position as City of Oak Ridge alternate — and thus as LOC Board chairman — via email on December 2 (after I tried to hold a regular meeting of the LOC board to address 5 months of accumulated business).

The local news media have had little coverage of this matter, but my series of blog posts should help fill in some of the details. Frank Munger of the Knoxville News Sentinel interviewed me after the January 9 meeting and described the interview in his Atomic City Underground blog: Oak Ridge environmental leader: ‘There’s been a lot of heavy-handedness’. As I told him, I feel like I was treated like a non-person. Adults in public leadership positions could have spoken directly about concerns that they may have had about the LOC’s management and direction (for example, they could have attended some of the regularly scheduled public meetings of the LOC Board on which they held seats). Instead they plotted in secret to dissolve the LOC and divert its funding to other uses, and their only communication with the rest of us was very impersonal, consisting primarily of emailed notices (I started to think of them as summonses) of special called meetings whose purposes were limited to dismantlement of the organization. As far as I know, the leaders of this effort (the Oak Ridge and Anderson County mayors and the Roane County executive, supported by the Oak Ridge City Manager) did not speak directly with the organization’s executive director about this matter until after they had finally obtained an LOC Board vote (last week) to terminate her employment. And I’ve heard reports, mostly fourth-hand and thus unverifiable, about stories exchanged by some area officials regarding the alleged misdeeds of the LOC bear only the vaguest resemblance to any actual events that I’m aware of.

I probably will never know if I’ve been one of the targets of character assassination in relation to the LOC (how can the victim ever be sure?), but I do know that this episode has seriously damaged my working relationships with some of my “teammates” in Oak Ridge city government. Furthermore, as I told Frank Munger (and as Leonard Abbatiello told the mayors, but to no avail), I believe that the death of the LOC has diminished this region’s access to the technical resources and the regional interactions that we need to make sure that the legacies of the Manhattan Project, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and Department of Energy (DOE) are appropriately addressed.  I also expect political damage to the various elected officials who were determined to eliminate the LOC, in the face of a diverse variety of citizens telling them (over the past several months) about the unique value it has had for them.

And what benefit do the individual mayors and local governments expect to get to balance against these losses? Indications are that the governments want to divide the LOC funding between them. The LOC grant has been about $170,000 yearly. If that gets cut by 10%, it becomes $153,000. Divided between 8 jurisdictions (7 counties and the city of Oak Ridge), that’s a bit more than $19,000 each — not a very big prize when measured against the damage that has been done.

I hope that the LOC-affiliated volunteer citizen groups that survive (Oak Ridge’s Environmental Quality Advisory Board, Roane County’s Environmental Review Board, and the successor to the LOC’s Citizens’ Advisory Panel (which was rebuffed on its request to hang on to the LOC’s nonprofit charter and IRS 501(c)(3) status) will be able to recreate some of the value — and potential value — that we are losing with the LOC. I think Oak Ridge and the region need them, even if certain political leaders don’t think so.

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Time to catch my breath?

Lately I feel like the airport is my second home, but I may finally be getting a chance to catch my breath after my most recent trip, to the National League of Cities meeting in Phoenix. I returned home with my bags stuffed with handouts and new knowledge and ideas on topics including managing and using social media in local government, possible ways for Oak Ridge to implement the repair of sewer laterals that fail smoke tests (something that will soon be a big deal here) and help residents prepare for future problems with their laterals, ingredients for successful “green” initiatives (more difficult here than in some other regions of the country), how other cities house their community centers to serve youth and seniors, and “much much more.”

City Council meets Monday evening with a full agenda. I expect that many agenda items will be uncontroversial, but several will generate discussion, and there are a few items that I will either oppose or seek to amend:

1. Local Oversight Committee. I believe that regional cooperation is vital for dealing with matters like the challenges our region faces as the host of Department of Energy nuclear facilities, legacy contamination, and the radioactive waste industry that has come here because of DOE. However, I don’t like the proposal to discard the 20-year-old Local Oversight Committee and start all over again with a vague plan for a committee of regional mayors (ironically, the same type of group that set up the Local Oversight Committee in the first place).

The LOC was established to provide technical resources to help the region’s communities with the particular challenges of DOE environmental cleanup and waste management activities. Because these technical matters are outside the expertise and interest of most local governments, technical resources (funded from federal coffers) have been thought necessary to help governments and communities deal effectively with these challenges. The LOC employs a technically qualified professional executive director who works with the organization board of directors (nominally consisting of mayors and chairs of some technical advisory boards) and volunteers on the LOC Citizen Advisory Panel to stay abreast of current developments, determine how situations affect the region’s communities and local governments, and communicate on various matters to local, state, and federal entities and the public. Now several mayors (including Tom Beehan) want to scrap the LOC in favor of a new, apparently politically oriented, entity to be directed solely by mayors.

Whatever shortcomings the LOC has had in recent years are attributable in large part to a resounding lack of interest by the mayors who have nominally been members of the LOC board of directors but chose not to participate — and in several cases (notably, Knox County) did not even bother to designate alternates to serve on their behalf. With little participation from elected officials, it sometimes was difficult for the LOC to stay focused on local government priorities. The mayors’ demonstrated lack of interest in the organization and its functions is not a good omen for the success of their plan to trash the LOC and start all over again. (The mayors have not suddenly developed interest and expertise in technical matters.)

After hearing from citizens about the unique value of the LOC (largely at the September 9th special meeting of the LOC board), including being told by four former chairmen of the Oak Ridge Reservation Site Specific Advisory Board that the SSAB is not a substitute for the LOC, I foolishly thought the mayors recognized that the political damage they would suffer from trashing the LOC — including firing the various citizens who have volunteered their efforts and expertise as board alternates and advisory board members — outweighs the value of any money they could get out of that action. Foolish of me. Now Oak Ridge City Council and several regional county commissions are being asked to sign on to an “interlocal agreement” (effectively a contract) that gives little indication of the purpose and direction of the proposed new entity, beyond saying the mayors will be in charge.

The proposed interlocal agreement is said to be patterned after the charter for the Hanford Communities (see page 21 of this package),  considered by other local governments to be a successful model of regional cooperation among DOE communities, and one that is well-integrated with local government.  The fact that the Hanford Communities organization is well-integrated with local government could be explained in large part by the fact that it is financed  by membership dues from member governments, in contrast with the Oak Ridge LOC, which is funded with federal cleanup money. Accordingly, it makes sense that the agreement under which the Hanford group operates is structured as the charter for a membership organization, but it does not make sense to have copied those elements for the structure of the proposed East Tennessee entity. I also note that the Hanford agreement has many details regarding the purposes and functions of the organization that were not copied into the proposed interlocal agreement for East Tennessee.

I’d like to support continued regional cooperation, but I can’t endorse an “interlocal agreement” that contains little more substance that the statement that the mayors of several entities “desire to meet on a regular basis.”

2. “Not in Our City”. This is a package of ideas and initiatives that our city needs. Still, the proposed program of inspection of residential units before the utilities are turned on, which is a major element of this package, needs to be implemented very carefully to ensure that the city does not act “arbitrarily and capriciously” against the interest of any property owner.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines proposed to be used for this inspection program is long and detailed, and it includes a number of vague or subjective items.  Until the guidelines are tightened up to make them both unambiguous and easier to understand, I am not convinced that this new program is ready to implement, even on a trial basis (as staff proposes). I also have some reservations about the “sewer laterals” element of the inspection, which is a whole ‘nother story.

3. What is “Fast Food”? Staff is proposing a new definition for “fast food” in order to allow “fast casual” restaurants with drive-up service, but not “fast food” restaurants, in the Woodland Center Planned Unit Development. I’m all for the concept, but it appears to me that the staff’s proposed new definition — based largely on restaurant size —  would exclude some small non-fast restaurants (such as Homeland Cafe, Razzleberry’s, and Connie’s Natural Gourmet) by calling them “fast food,” while potentially allowing other businesses with drive-through operations that might not be kind to the adjacent residential neighborhood. I think this proposal should be vetted by the Planning Commission before Council votes on it at first reading, rather than after.  In the meantime, I will ask for more details on the proposed wording changes (the package provided to Council lacks some needed context) .

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Local Oversight Committee is still in business

After an interesting meeting in Kingston this afternoon, the Local Oversight Committee (LOC) is still in business. Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan’s resolution to dissolve the organization passed (by a 7-4 vote), but only after several substantial amendments, including one that changed its main effect from “is hereby dissolved effective September 30″ to “is hereby to transition from a 501(c)(3) organization to an entity under a local government as a fiscal agent.”

After the meeting, I signed the TDEC grant contract to provide funding to make the LOC solvent again, as the board had voted to retain the June 30, 2012 contract ending date, but with the expectation that the organizational transition likely will happen before that date.

Members of the public (several of whom were in attendance) had an opportunity to speak early in the meeting. Among those making statements in support of retaining the LOC and describing its unique value to the region were a former Oak Ridge City Council member and former LOC chairman (Leonard Abbatiello, who said the LOC provides “the only independent technical review of what DOE is doing”), a former Roane County Commissioner who served on the LOC Board and was chairman of the SSAB (Bob Peelle), and a former member of the LOC CAP who also formerly chaired the SSAB (Luther Gibson). Elizabeth Peelle and Oak Ridge City Council member Anne Garcia Garland also added supportive statements as citizens.

I imagine that these citizen statements, together with messages that board members said they had received prior to the meeting, might have caused some of the board members to change their views. Roane County Executive Ron Woody said that his main concern regarding the current LOC structure was related to legal liability and fiscal controls; he expressed his general support for the LOC’s functions. Anderson County Mayor Myron Iwanski said he wanted to keep a “CAP-like organization”, but hoped it would enjoy fuller participation. [To be continued… Or read the news — three area newspapers had reporters at the meeting, who took better notes than I could take as chairman.]

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Local Oversight Committee

At a meeting on Friday afternoon, Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan and several county mayors from around the region are expected to vote to dissolve the Oak Ridge Reservation Local Oversight Committee (LOC), asking the state to instead direct the LOC’s funding to a “board of mayors and county executives” who will decide how to spend the money for the benefit of their local governments.

Since 2007 I’ve served as the LOC board chairman, representing the City of Oak Ridge. Right now, I’m feeling a bit like I was “hung out to dry” by other city officials who were working to eliminate the LOC, unbeknownst to me, at the same time that I was trying to fulfill my duties as a board member by seeking answers to questions about the  prospects for continued funding to pay the organization’s bills.

The LOC is a nonprofit that was formed 20 years ago to represent the interests of local jurisdictions affected by Department of Energy (DOE) environmental contamination, contamination rumors, cleanup, and other DOE activities in Oak Ridge. Its efforts have included conducting public education, evaluating and making recommendations on DOE reports and actions, and communicating local concerns to state and federal governments. The LOC has a 2-person staff and operates with grant funding from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), which in turn gets the money from DOE under the Tennessee Oversight Agreement (TOA). It is led by a board of directors consisting of the mayors (or county executives) of Oak Ridge and seven area counties, plus the chairmen of three environmental advisory boards. In practice, most jurisdictions are represented by alternates who have particular interests or government responsibilities in environment or emergency management.

A volunteer Citizens Advisory Panel (CAP) does a lot of the LOC’s work. Over the years, the CAP membership has included a variety of people wanting to “give back” to the community by evaluating technical materials and helping with public education. Among them are long-time area residents retired from jobs with federal contractors, current employees of DOE contractors and waste processing businesses, and newcomers to the region eager for the chance to learn about local conditions and set their minds at ease about living here.

I’ve been on the board of directors for a large fraction of the LOC’s existence, first during stints as chairman of the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) and since 2007 representing the Oak Ridge City Council as the mayor’s alternate. Also in 2007, I succeeded Leonard Abbatiello (the previous mayoral alternate) as chairman of the LOC board.

The latest five-year TOA was up for renewal this year. That renewal has been delayed, apparently mostly because of differences between DOE and the state of Tennessee regarding how much of a funding cut the state should have to suffer. When the new state fiscal year started on July 1 with no money for the LOC and no new TOA agreement in sight, I guessed that the LOC’s funding would be reduced or possibly eliminated However, there were oral assurances from TDEC that the new TOA would provide money for the LOC, so we did not take the drastic steps of shutting down the office and laying off staff when last year’s money ran out, but I did make sure that staff understood that they could choose not to work, since there might not be any money to pay them.

I believe that state officials were sincere when they gave assurances about future funding, but they were confused by the fact that, at the same time I was asking them about funding for the LOC, other officials from my city government were privately urging them to terminate funding for the organization. (Frank Munger of the Knoxville News Sentinel has documented some of that story on his blog — he and I both obtained copies of city manager Mark Watson’s August 3rd letter to the state on August 23.)

At a special meeting of the LOC board on September 1, called by Ron Woody and Myron Iwanski of Roane and Anderson counties to discuss the LOC’s finances and future, several of the mayors in attendance (only two of whom had ever previously attended an LOC board meeting) expressed their desire to dissolve the LOC and use TDEC funding for other local purposes. This Friday, at another LOC board meeting, I expect that most of the region’s eight mayors will vote as members of the LOC board to dissolve the organization and ask TDEC to give the money that would have gone to the LOC to one of the local governments to be used as directed by a regional “board of mayors and county executives.” Added (September 8, 2011): The Roane County News reported on the meeting.

It’s not entirely clear why the mayors want to do away with the LOC. It’s probably  valid to generalize that they don’t think the LOC’s activities are relevant to them. In recent years, DOE and its environmental cleanup has not been seen as a crisis for the region’s local governments. That’s a contrast from the LOC’s early years, when mercury in the East Fork Poplar Creek floodplain was a hot topic, DOE was actively conducting Superfund investigations of sediments and fish in Watts Bar Lake, and owners of Watts Bar marinas and resorts said that worry about possible contamination was costing them business. In the 1990s, local governments sought LOC’s help in working with federal and state regulators and in providing public education resources to help dispel people’s concerns. In more recent years, DOE activities were no longer a crisis for local governments (although there are some serious issues that should not be ignored) and the LOC staff has found it a struggle to interact effectively with the region’s local officials, particularly with all seven counties getting new mayors since August 2010. As board chairman, I’m acutely aware of ways in which the LOC has fallen short of its potential, and I’ve had a longstanding concern about a need for more effective involvement of the member jurisdictions.

Instead of using their positions as board members to redirect the LOC’s management and activities, the mayors want to dissolve the organization. They give multiple reasons. At the September 1 meeting, one mayor said that he considered the board’s six yearly meetings to be too tedious to attend (a judgment apparently based on the meeting agendas). It was also said to be  inappropriate for the LOC to communicate with DOE and state agencies on behalf of the region — at least one mayor says that only the individual governments should communicate with DOE. Oak Ridge city manager Mark Watson has observed that a stand-alone nonprofit organization such as the LOC has some costs (which I summarize as “organizational overhead”) that would not exist if the TDEC grant funds were managed under the umbrella of a city or county government. He would like the funding to be used for the direct benefit of individual local governments, such as for training, instead of paying for an organization’s operations. At least one of the mayors is critical of the LOC for not having directors and officers liability insurance for the board (a good idea, but something that had never been suggested previously by any board member or alternate).

This whole sequence of events has been strange and upsetting for me. I foresee this episode undermining future working relationships within the City Council and with the City Manager. There are additional implications for the relationship between the mayor and other Council members, considering that our mayor is not a voter-elected executive but is elected by other council members for a list of duties (in the city charter) that does not appear to include abolishing nonprofits without Council authorization: “The mayor shall preside at meetings of the council, shall have a vote on all matters but no veto power, shall be the ceremonial head of the city, shall sign ordinances and resolutions on their final passage, shall sign deeds, bonds and contracts when authorized by the council to do so, shall be the officer to accept process against the city, shall not have any regular administrative duties, and shall perform only such duties as shall be specifically conferred.”

I can only imagine how Susan and Joyce, the LOC staff, are feeling, as they watch their jobs get swept away by politics.

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“Bemused” or “amused” or “upset”?

I can’t choose the best word to describe my thoughts on media reaction to the City of Oak Ridge comments on the draft request for proposals (RFP) for DOE’s Oak Ridge environmental management (EM) contract (the successor to Bechtel Jacobs). OK, I’m tickled to see that Frank Munger likes my own main addition to those comments — the suggestion that the contract be named “Oak Ridge,” not just “East Tennessee Technology Park”, since it’s for environmental cleanup and waste management across the Oak Ridge complex, not just at ETTP. But what to say about the way Munger described those comments in his blog — not to mention the online reaction? One city comment asked DOE to require that the top executives of the new contractor and major subcontractors have “their primary residences” in Oak Ridge. It’s unfortunate that Munger sees this as “forcing” them to live in the city. Consider that this purpose of this contract is to clean up sites in Oak Ridge that are contaminated with radioactive and hazardous material, manage legacy wastes, and do it all in a manner that ensures current and future public safety. Shouldn’t the people responsible for leading this work (who, by the way, likely will receive high-six-figure compensation for their trouble) show their confidence in the quality of their work by living in the same community where they are working? From my professional background and experience at ORNL, I know more about environmental conditions here than most people do, and I believe that the Oak Ridge residential environment is safe and that the public has no reason to fear the impacts of ongoing “EM” work, but what does it tell the world if the top executives responsible for this work decide to locate their homes and families 15 or 20 miles away from the project? As the city’s letter states, “This requirement is especially important for the cleanup contract to promote community and public confidence in the ability of the Contractor to perform the work in a safe manner.”

Oak Ridge environmental cleanup has given the city of Oak Ridge an undeserved bad reputation, while providing a significant economic boost for the region. It is entirely reasonable that the people who are profiting from cleanup should support the community that is supporting them.

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Loss of DOE cleanup funding averted?

I’m tickled about the news that the big cuts in DOE’s 2011 Environmental Management (i.e., environmental cleanup) budget for Oak Ridge that were rumored to be in the proposed budget have been averted. Frank Munger’s blog tells about Representative Lincoln Davis’ role in restoring funds to the yet-to-be-announced budget. Three cheers for Lincoln Davis!

Cleanup budgets have been lean in recent years (less than necessary t0 meet previously negotiated regulatory commitments). Cutting the funding even further would not only have caused a lot of job losses, but would have required East Tennessee to live even longer with the negative legacies of the Manhattan Project and Cold War.

I hope that the funding restoration remains intact as the proposed budget moves through Congress…

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