Note: This story was last updated at 10:45 p.m.
The new Mercury Treatment Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex will help reduce the amount of mercury that gets into East Fork Poplar Creek and allow the demolition of four large buildings where mercury was used to help make nuclear weapons during the Cold War, officials said Monday.
Mercury contamination is one of the biggest problems remaining from the Cold War, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander said during a groundbreaking ceremony on Monday morning. Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, first announced the new treatment facility at Y-12 more than four years ago.
“In May 2013, I came to Oak Ridge to announce that a new water treatment facility would be built at Y-12 at the head of the East Fork Poplar Creek to prevent mercury that was once used to make nuclear weapons from getting into our waterways,” Alexander said. “That day, I made a personal commitment to address one of the biggest problems we have from the Cold War era—mercury contamination—and help fund a solution. Today, I am proud to see that we are breaking ground on the new water treatment facility.”
Site preparation for the new Mercury Treatment Facility is expected to start this year, with the rest of construction beginning in late 2018. The facility is expected to start operating in late 2022.
The treatment plant will allow workers to demolish four large buildings where mercury, a toxic metal, was once used: Alpha 2, Alpha 4, Alpha 5, and Beta 4. Work on those buildings, mostly on the west side of Y-12, could start by 2024.
“This project paves the way for critical infrastructure that will enable us to begin major demolition at Y-12,” said Jay Mullis, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management. “We are incredibly grateful for the support we’ve received from our elected officials, and we are eager to get work under way to advance environmental cleanup at one of the nation’s most important national security sites.”
The Mercury Treatment Facility will actually have two facilities in two separate areas. The first, known as the headworks facility, will capture water traveling from the western side of the site. It will be built at a spot known as Outfall 200. That’s the area where the storm drain system at Y-12 discharges at the headwaters of Upper East Fork Poplar Creek. It’s in an area near the Beta 1 and Beta 3 buildings on the south side of Y-12’s main production area.
The second part of the Mercury Treatment Facility will be the treatment facility itself. It will be built on the eastern side of Y-12. Water will flow through a pipeline from the headworks facility to the treatment facility. The treatment facility will be able to treat 3,000 gallons of water per minute, and it will include a two-million-gallon storage tank to collect stormwater..
Mullis said the Mercury Treatment Facility will use technology that is not unique—it’s used in water treatment systems, he said—but it’s unique in terms of collecting mercury. It’s expected to reduce mercury concentrations to safe levels of parts per trillion. The mercury collected at the treatment facility will be packaged and disposed at appropriate sites, Mullis said.
Officials are waiting to demolish the four large Y-12 buildings—Alpha 2, Alpha 4, Alpha 5, and Beta 4—until the Mercury Treatment Facility is built because they want to use it to keep mercury out of the water as workers disturb the mercury-contaminated buildings and soils. When the soils and buildings have been disturbed in the past, they’ve released mercury, Mullis said during an April 12 annual community budget workshop.
“The key is we contain it, we capture it (the mercury),” said U.S. Representative Chuck Fleischmann, a Tennessee Republican whose district includes Oak Ridge.
“There are a lot of big buildings on this site that we need to clean up and tear down, and there is still a lot of mercury that is not accounted for,” Alexander said. “This facility will make it possible for us to do that cleanup work and not let more mercury get into the waterways.”
East Fork Poplar Creek starts at a spring at Y-12 and flows through central Oak Ridge before joining West Fork Poplar Creek at the former K-25 site, now known as East Tennessee Technology Park.
Y-12 was initially built to enrich uranium for atomic bombs during World War II. It used mercury to separate lithium for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The lithium separation operations started in 1955 and ended in 1963, and the plant used more than 20 million pounds of mercury. During that time, about 700,000 pounds of mercury were lost into buildings, soil, groundwater, and sediment. The U.S. Department of Energy said the mercury flowed through pumps, pipes, valves, and seals at high rates and sometimes escaped into the environment.
The groundbreaking on Monday marked the start of construction on the Mercury Treatment Facility. Workers could be at the construction site starting the first week of December, said Ken Rueter, president and project manager of UCOR, DOE’s primary cleanup contractor in Oak Ridge. The project is a key milestone in DOE’s cleanup work moving from the East Tennessee Technology Park (the former K-25 site), where most work is expected to be done by 2020, to Y-12 and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
UCOR will provide construction management support for the Mercury Treatment Facility project. UCOR has awarded a $1.4 million contract to GEM Technologies of Knoxville for site preparation, and work is under way to hire a contractor to perform the rest of the construction starting late next year.
Fleischmann gave Alexander credit for being a project advocate.
“He was basically the person who put mercury cleanup on the map here,” the congressman said of the senator.
Alexander said $40 million has been spent on mercury remediation and another $17 million is planned by the end of the year, or $57 million total.
The project is expected to cost more, possibly a few hundred million dollars total, including operational costs over a few decades.
The Mercury Treatment Facility could reduce the flow of mercury, which travels from west to east at Y-12, by an estimated 84 percent. The treatment plant will be modular and officials will be able to scale it to allow for expansion and to provide flexibility.
Among those attending Monday’s groundbreaking were Alexander, Fleischmann, Mullis, Rueter, U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, Tennessee Deputy Governor Jim Henry, and Michael Evans, president of GEM Technologies.
Mark Whitney, former environmental management manager in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Office, once said mercury contamination at Y-12 is the greatest environmental risk on the Oak Ridge Reservation. During the May 2013 announcement, he said remediation work began in the 1980s, and federal officials used about $250 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 on the work and to help design the new water treatment plant.
Sue Cange, who was then deputy environmental management manager in the Oak Ridge Office, said the amount of mercury that flows into East Fork Poplar Creek varies, but the waterway generally has a concentration of about 400 parts per trillion. State water quality criteria call for a concentration of 51 parts per trillion or less, Cange said at the time.
Twenty miles of East Fork Poplar Creek in Anderson and Roane counties were included on a 2014 state list of impaired waterways due to mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, among other pollutants, and a fishing advisory is in effect. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation proposed including those sections of the creek on the 2016 list also.
Mercury contamination can cause brain and nervous system damage in people who eat contaminated fish.
Separate from the Mercury Treatment Facility, there is a mercury remediation technology development project under way at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for Lower East Fork Poplar Creek, which is below where the creek flows out of Y-12. That project is funded by the Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management through UCOR.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
See our previous stories on mercury cleanup and the Mercury Treatment Facility here.
See this story for background information on mercury at Y-12.
See this story for Alexander’s announcement in May 2013.
See a preview of the site prep work from earlier this year here.
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