Lawmakers are accusing the Department of Energy of deliberately letting the operators of a government-owned uranium processing plant send radioactive pollution into the air and water of southwestern Ohio.

Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said it appeared the agency had given itself "almost a papal ability to absolve sins.""The company admits it polluted but its defense is that it had permission to pollute and DOE gave it that permission," he said Friday at a hearing.

The Fernald Feed Materials Production Center near Cincinnati has processed uranium for use in nuclear weapons since 1951 and discharged radioactive waste into the air, a major aquifer and the nearby Great Miami River.

"For most of the last 35 years DOE sat on its hands and did nothing to fix the situation at that plant," said Rep. Thomas Luken, D-Ohio.

The Energy Department said in a recent court filing that at first there was no technology to stop the discharges and in recent years the money to do so has not been available.

Eric Fygi, the agency's acting general counsel, told the lawmakers the court documents do not provide a complete picture of the situation.

Luken, who arranged the hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Committee panel, said the agency "admits that it knew for over 20 years that its waste pits were leaking."

"It now admits that it knew that the plant's air pollution control system was obsolete and deteriorated before it was refurbished," he said. "And it now admits that it knew that heavy rains swept uranium-contaminated water into a nearby stream and thence into the groundwater."

Government nuclear plants were under jurisdiction of the old Atomic Energy Commission and its successor Nuclear Regulatory Comission before those functions were placed under the Department of Energy when it was formed during the Carter administration.

Ohio's environmental protection chief, Richard Shank, told the transportation, tourism and hazardous materials subcommittee the plant has discharged 298,000 pounds of uranium into the air and 167,000 pounds of uranium into the Great Miami River since 1951.

An independent analyst said he suspected actual levels were much higher.

"There is a lot of evidence that the operator was quite negligent," said Arjun Makhijani, director of energy programs at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md. "Many, many elementary precautions were not taken."

Makhijani expressed doubts about records showing no discharges in the 1970s when the plant was badly deteriorating and the federal government spending nothing on improvements.

He also questioned the records' accuracy because the plant staff was unfamiliar with crucial monitoring equipment. He said some measuring instruments were in poor condition.

"Most of the radioactive materials which were discharged, particularly those discharged to the air, were not monitored," Makhijani said.

Charles Zinser of Cincinnati told the panel he suspects the plant's discharges were responsible for the rare cancers that afflicted his 8-year-old and 2-year-old sons.

And Joe Carvitti, whose father, Joseph Carvitti died of liver cancer after working at the plant from 1952 to 1974, told the subcommittee the death was ruled work-related by the Ohio Workers' Compensation Bureau - a ruling now being appealed a second time by NLO Inc., which operated the plant from the early 1950's until 1986.

The company is being sued for $300 million by 14,000 people who live or work near the plant. The Energy Department is trying to shield the contractor from liability on grounds the company was following government orders.

Documents filed by the department Sept. 30 in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati said all actions by the contractor were required or approved by the government.