U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander on Tuesday questioned energy secretary nominee Ernest Moniz on whether the cleanup of mercury contamination in Oak Ridge would be a priority under his leadership, a press release said.
“One of the biggest cleanup problems we have from the Cold War era is mercury contamination of waterways in Oak Ridge,” said Alexander, a Tennessee Republican.
The release said Alexander also asked Moniz to support a planned water treatment facility.
Alexander was referring to about 200,000 gallons of mercury that arrived at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge during the 1950s and 1960s, when the United States was developing nuclear weapons as a defense against the Soviet Union. Alexander said it will cost billions of dollars to clean it up.
He asked Moniz whether he agreed that a good temporary strategy would be to build a water treatment plant at the head of the creek that contains most of the contaminated water, the release said.
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,” according to the press release.
Alexander questioned Moniz at a hearing of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The senator is a member of that committee.
President Barack Obama nominated Moniz in March to replace Steven Chu, who announced in February that he would not serve a second four-year term as secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. The website Politico reported that Moniz, who is a physicist and director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, breezed through Tuesday’s hearing, “setting the stage for what is expected to be an easy confirmation.”
The press release said 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 a health concern in the area. Of the 200,000 gallons of mercury 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 release said.