Radioactive material closes middle school in Piketon

A school district in southern Ohio has closed its middle school because of concerns of radioactive contamination from a shuttered uranium enrichment plant fewer than five miles away.

The Scioto Valley Local School District announced it would close Zahn’s Corner Middle School Monday after Department of Energy officials said Monday that they had no plans to stop their work at the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, a 3,000–acre facility nearby that stopped producing enriched uranium in 2001. Energy Department contractors are building a waste disposal site on the plant as they work to clean up the site.

Board of Education President Brandon K. Wooldridge said the district was working with the Ohio Department of Education to make up the five or six remaining days in the school year for students. The school has a student population of about 360, he said.

County health department officials became concerned about contamination after the recent release of a 2017 Energy Department report that said the DOE found traces of neptunium at an air monitoring station on the grounds of the middle school. Neptunium is a carcinogen linked to bone cancers.


The Dayton Daily News did a special report on the nuclear plant in Piketon. Here’s a look at some of those stories:

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In a statement, the Department of Energy confirmed that trace amounts of neptunium were found in two ambient air monitoring stations near the Portsmouth plant

“Even though the detected levels were well below the established thresholds of concern for public health, DOE is taking immediate steps to obtain independent soil and air quality samples in the surrounding area, and will take all appropriate actions to address community concerns,” the statement read.

In an open letter to parents and community members, the school district said it would close the middle school “until the source, extent, level of contamination, and potential impacts to public health and the environment can be determined.”

“It is the position of the Board that any level of contamination on or near our school is unacceptable,” they wrote.

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The closure of the school came after the Pike County Health Department formally called on the DOE to stop construction of the nuclear waste disposal facility after an independent study also found contamination at other sites in the community.

The health district as well as representatives from Piketon, Scioto Township and the Scioto Valley Local School District met Monday with Assistant Secretary of Energy Anne White to discuss how to ensure the safety of the community. During that meeting, White reiterated that while the Department of Energy wanted to sponsor a third party independent review of contamination issues, it would not stop construction work at the disposal site until they had better data.

“We got a 50–50 result here,” said Jennifer Chandler, a Piketon village councilwoman. “We really are concerned their actions, something they are doing, is releasing contaminants into the environment that are making it off site. We hoped they would just take a pause and figure out where it’s coming from.”

Credit: Chris Stewart

Credit: Chris Stewart

She said she knows of five students who have been diagnosed with cancer over the last five years. Three died.

“My concern is that we are at one student a year,” she said. “What are the health effects on our community? I know every single one of those students who had a cancer diagnosis.”

For Wooldridge, the news of potential contamination hit home on two fronts: His son, a sixth grader, goes to Zahn’s Corner. He, too, is concerned about a high rate of cancer. “We live in a cancer belt here,” he said.

J.C. Benton, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health said they are currently reviewing the research and sample results. And Heidi Griesmer, deputy director of the Ohio EPA, said the agency is evaluating the data with the Department of Health.

“While the amount reported is far below the risk level, we have asked the Department of Energy to investigate it further,” Griesmer said.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Rob Portman, R–Ohio, said Portman “is aware of the situation and is working with the US Department of Energy and Ohio EPA to better understand all of the data presented to ensure the safety and health of the residents, families, and workers of the Piketon community.” And a spokeswoman for Sen. Sherrod Brown, D–Ohio, said Brown is working with the Senate Appropriations Committee “to hold DOE accountable and get answers on behalf of the community.”

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Michael Ketterer, a professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry at Northern Arizona University, said he believes the contamination is widespread.

On a visit to settle his father’s estate last year in Summit County, Ohio, Ketterer, who describes himself as a “forensic chemist,” took a day trip to Pike County to collect samples. His initial findings were startling enough that he said he felt obligated to follow up.

He contacted a fence-line neighbor of the plant who has been vocal about her concerns of contamination and had her take some 80 samples and ship them to him. The samples — taken of water and dust in homes, for example — tested positive for plutonium, uranium and neptunium.

Ketterer said the samples were not the types of uranium found in nature.

“No question about it,” he said. “Based on the environmental fingerprint, they were coming from the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion facility.”

He and a fellow researcher released their initial findings April 27 during a community meeting. The community, he said, was outraged.

“I was across the U.S. on a speaker phone,” he said. “But I could smell blood through the telephone line.”

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