Energy Chief O'Leary Wins West Coast Kudos with Her `Roadshow' but Some Hanford Activists Remain Skeptical, Wanting Faster Release of Nuclear Documents

Article excerpt

HAZEL O'LEARY is turning many foes into fans.

Faced with thousands of Americans concerned that their health and the environment have been damaged by nuclear-weapons production, the energy secretary is coming off as candid and responsive, a marked shift from her predecessors.

The change stems from several factors, including the end of the cold-war emphasis on secrecy, President Clinton's stated emphasis on governmental openness and "accountability," and the credibility gap that the Energy Department must bridge after revelations that many Americans were used by the agency as unwitting guinea pigs to test the effects of radioactivity.

The first step in restoring lost trust has been the release of many classified documents, starting last month with information on plutonium production and weapons tests. This month, more information has been released, and the department held "roadshows" in San Francisco and Seattle to listen to critics.

Activists have plenty of requests for Ms. O'Leary, but they also come to praise her. "You're wonderful because you're saving lives," says Tom Bailie, a farmer who says he has had numerous health problems related to emissions from the nearby Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

"Thank you for restoring the hope that we had though lost," says Gerald Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, which is calling on O'Leary to declassify information on plutonium releases, accidents, and safety reviews at Hanford, located in central Washington State.

Drawing on her background as a utility executive, O'Leary conducts the gathering here like a business meeting. She acts immediately on several suggestions from activists and moves to remove procedural roadblocks in other cases.

Gregory deBruler, representing Columbia River United, complains that one company hired to do an environmental review of Hanford has been one of the polluters there. …