U.S. Reviews Ohio Toxic Waste Cleanup
CINCINNATI — A bird’s nest nestled in the tall grasses of a wetland symbolizes the end of a 20-year struggle to clean up a site contaminated by radioactive material from a former Cold War-era uranium processing plant.
After years of often-contentious public meetings, lawsuits and relentless lobbying, the land is now devoid of 1.5 million tons of its most dangerous waste and has begun its transformation into an undeveloped park and wildlife haven covered with woods, prairie and wetlands.
“I thought many times that we would never see it turned into something useable and safe for residents,” said Lisa Crawford, president and a founding member of the citizens group that began fighting for cleanup of the former Fernald plant site 22 years ago. “It’s been a long road, but we finally got there.”
Fluor Fernald, the company in charge of the cleanup that cost federal taxpayers $4.4 billion, announced Oct. 29 that its work was completed. The Energy Department, which owns the site, is conducting a final review to ensure the cleanup meets its standards.
Findings of numerous health studies on Fernald have not been as definitive as workers and residents had hoped, but studies are continuing. Researchers say it can take decades for radiation-linked cancers to show up, and it is difficult to say whether cancers and other health problems occurring among workers and residents are linked to Fernald.
The innocuous-sounding Feed Material Production Center that would later gain national notoriety as a radioactively contaminated site was built in a rural area about 20 miles northwest of Cincinnati in 1951. Its task – processing uranium metal used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons – was shrouded in secrecy.
“We were under national security clearance and not allowed to tell our families, friends or even workers in other parts of the site about what we did there,” said Gene Branham, former president of the Fernald Atomic Trade and Labor Council union representing Fernald workers.
Time magazine wrote a cover story in 1988 about the site and residents’ worries – headlined “The Nuclear Scandal” – and television talk show host Phil Donahue devoted a program to Fernald that year.
“When people knew you worked at Fernald, they would ask you if you glowed in the dark,” said Fluor Fernald spokesman Jeff Wagner, who began working at the site for Westinghouse Material Co. of Ohio in 1986 when citizen outrage and fear were at a high point.
The questions started in the 1970s. The Department of Energy in 1979 found that radon gas had been leaking from storage silos for years. Residents worried that radioactive uranium contamination found in the air, water and soil could lead to cancer and other diseases. Workers were concerned about risks from uranium and from radon gas and toxic chemicals stored on the site.
The public began demanding answers in 1984, when government documents revealed that almost 300 pounds of enriched uranium oxide dust had been released into the air from a faulty dust collection system. Neighboring wells were found to be contaminated from similar emissions from production and waste storage operations through the years. Those emissions dropped into the soil, contaminating groundwater.
“I came home in 1984 to find a man climbing out of my well, but he wouldn’t tell me what he was doing,” said Crawford, who became angry and worried when she found they were testing for radioactive contamination.
Her feelings were shared by about 100 families who formed Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health that year. Crawford became president, and she and her husband, Ken, were lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the government, charging emotional distress and damaged property values.
The plant closed in 1989, the year the government settled for $78 million, including medical testing for nearby residents that is scheduled to end in 2008 unless more funding is found. Fernald workers also sued and reached a $20 million settlement with the government in 1994 that included lifetime medical monitoring.
Suspicion and animosity ran high for years. Public meetings in the late 1980s and early 1990s were legendary, said DOE spokesman Gary Stegner.
“You’d be trying to answer questions from angry residents, and you’d feel like you had a target on your face,” he said.
Combativeness gradually gave way to cooperation, and some FRESH members served on an advisory board the Energy Department formed to develop a consensus on cleanup issues. In 1995, the board recommended setting target cleanup levels, restricting future use of the 1,050-acre site and reducing the amount of contaminated soil to be removed.
Radioactive waste from concrete silos that Energy Department officials say held the world’s largest source of radon gas were removed, treated and shipped to Texas. More than 1 million tons of other radioactive waste were shipped to hazardous waste storage sites in Nevada and Utah, and 323 buildings were demolished.
About 4.7 million tons of low-level waste, uranium-contaminated soil and building debris will remain at Fernald in a 110-acre fenced-off pile. The pile is encased in thick liners and caps made of strong synthetic material, clays, rock and clean soil and covered with prairie grass.
“Some of us had a problem at first with keeping any of it on site,” said Tom Willsey, a trustee for Ross Township, where part of Fernald is located. “We would have preferred to get it all out of here, but at some point reality kicks in and you realize you can’t just ship all your problems to someone else’s backyard.”
Activists fighting for cleanups elsewhere praise FRESH’s results.
“We’ve come a long way to see the Fernald site cleaned up in a manner that the citizens group feels good about,” said Gerald Pollett, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, pushing for the estimated $60 billion cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state.
Fernald area groundwater will be pumped and treated for 10 to 12 more years until the drinking water standard is met, and an education center highlighting Fernald history still has to be developed. But the citizens group, which held its last meeting Nov. 16, feels that its mission is accomplished.
While grass has not had time to grow in some areas, wild turkeys and deer roam the rolling hills and wooded areas. Wild geese and ducks can be found in and along the ponds and wetlands at the site where self-guided trails are to be established.
“We can laugh about a lot of it now, but we learned that you have to fight for what you believe in,” Crawford said. “We didn’t get total cleanup, but our community is healthier and safer. We made a difference.”