Frank Munger A precious resource could be lost forever

November 15, 2000

By Frank Munger News-Sentinel staff writer

The government's 34,000-acre Oak Ridge reservation, in its entirety, is on the National Priority List for Superfund cleanup. But that distinction is a little misleading.

Most of the pollution problems, including extensive waste graveyards, are found at or near the three major facilities: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant and the K-25 plant (also known as the East Tennessee Technology Park).

While Cold War nuclear activities left behind environmental hazards of great consequence -- requiring billions of dollars to clean up or contain -- much of the Department of Energy property remains taint-free and quite beautiful. In fact, the Oak Ridge reservation is home to one of the region's largest and most important environmental research parks.

That's why it saddens me to see this resource eroded by development, industrial and otherwise, gradually reducing its beauty and usefulness as an environmental preserve.

There are, of course, valid reasons for developing this land just as there are reasons for keeping it green.

Oddly enough, supporters of economic development use some of the same arguments as those who want to keep the bulldozers away -- albeit with a slightly different twist when making their case before the Department of Energy.

Both sides play the guilt card.

Developers cite the negative impact on the local economy, arguing that DOE historically used and abused some of East Tennessee's prime land, created an aberrant situation with its decades-long role as the dominant employer and then left the area acutely vulnerable by downsizing the workforce in the post-Cold War period.

Therefore, the federal government should help the city of Oak Ridge and the region diversify the economy, and one way to do that is make land available for new development.

The preservationists, of which I count myself, argue that the best thing the federal government can do with this land is leave it alone. With the large expanse intact, it not only can serve future generations as a sanctuary for wildlife but also as a recreational site and research park.

Last year, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson set aside 3,000 acres -- grasslands and woodlands -- adjacent to Melton Hill Lake as a scenic and wildlife management area. It was a wonderful action that's been repeated at DOE sites around the country.

Unfortunately, these environmental areas will suffer and ultimately be rendered ineffective in their purpose if they become mere buffer zones between industrial sites and condominium clusters.

The penalties often are more severe than the acre-by-acre damage to the property.

If you take 50 percent of an environmental research park and convert it to other uses, the research doesn't lose 50 percent of its usefulness. More likely, the site loses its research possibilities as a whole -- unless one wants to study the impact of industrial encroachment.

That example may exaggerate the point. Indeed, there are innovative ways to develop industrial parks and residential centers that minimize the damage and complement the surrounding environment.

But my feeling is this: The federal reservation in Oak Ridge offers a unique setting for environmental research, located in close proximity to ORNL and its collection of top environmental scientists.

If DOE continues to dole out property for local development, those special capabilities will be compromised forever.

Don't do it.

* DOE's annual environmental surveillance report, based on Oak Ridge data collected during 1999, is now available.

Copies of the report can be found at DOE's Oak Ridge reading room at 230 Warehouse Rd., Building 1916-T2, Suite 300. Or it can be viewed electronically at:

The lengthy report is pretty technical, with lots of monitoring statistics from DOE's Oak Ridge reservation. A summary document is expected to be released within the next few weeks.

Frank Munger covers the Department of Energy for the News-Sentinel. He can be reached at 865-482-9213 or at

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