Originally published Nov. 12, 2006
Part one of a three-part series
PIKETON — Inside the closely guarded confines of this 3,714-acre federal complex, deer lope along roadways, chubby groundhogs munch clover and wild turkeys gather during breeding season.
But this is no nature preserve.
Thousands of metal cylinders of corrosive radioactive waste — most weighing 14 tons and many heavily etched with rust — stretch across industrial yards.
Five plumes of poisoned groundwater lie beneath the surface, one of them so close to private land that traces of contamination were found in a monitoring well on a nearby farm.
Access is restricted inside three buildings that sprawl for more than a mile and are contaminated with radiation, beryllium, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and asbestos.
What dangers lie beneath the thick concrete floors of those buildings is anybody’s guess.
Welcome to the old Piketon atomic plant 100 miles southeast of Dayton, once a proud monument to Ohio’s nuclear legacy.
Today that legacy is one of mounting bills for U.S. taxpayers, an environmental cleanup that has no end in sight, and thousands of former workers or their survivors who sought compensation, claiming work-related cancers and other illnesses.
Government investigators blame problems at the now-closed Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant on decades of slipshod safety practices, accidental toxic releases and routine mishandling of chemical and radioactive material.
The cleanup cost at the uranium enrichment plant, estimated at $3 billion, could eventually top the $4.5 billion spent at the U.S. Department of Energy’s former Feed Materials Production Center in Fernald, according to Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials. That would make the Piketon cleanup the most expensive environmental reclamation project in Ohio history.
For decades, operators of the government-owned plant created a secret dump, spraying PCBs and uranium-contaminated oils on dusty roads, burying hazardous waste in unlined landfills, pouring toxins into waterways, allowing radioactive incinerator ash to scatter in the wind — even tilling radioactive oils into the ground.
Former workers told the Dayton Daily News chilling tales of a workplace in which managers downplayed risks, enforced a code of silence, and failed to protect employees against some of the most dangerous substances on earth.
Gary Sexton, 56, said he didn’t know hazardous levels of the metal beryllium were in the plant when he started work as a chemical operator in 1974. He now has trouble breathing because of a potentially fatal and incurable ailment known as chronic beryllium disease that afflicted about 38 Piketon workers.
“Of the ones that have chronic beryllium disease, there are more dead than living,” said Sexton, a safety representative for United Steelworkers Local 5689.
Donald Cruse, 65, said he was often sent to dismantle radiation-contaminated equipment and handle PCBs and asbestos without protective gear. He recently underwent surgery for melanoma, and breathes through a tube in his neck after losing part of his larynx to cancer.
“All the hottest places on the plant site, I worked,” said Cruse, who was employed there from 1975 to 1996. “They said none of that would hurt us. There wasn’t enough there to bother us.”
Kenny Estep coached peewee football, was an auxiliary police officer and headed the local Moose Lodge. But in his job as a truck driver at the Piketon plant, Estep hauled radioactive waste to a plant landfill. On March 7, 1978, he was handed a respirator and a pair of paper coveralls and told to dump snow on a leaking cylinder full of radioactive uranium hexafluoride, the material used to enrich uranium.
“He had a job to do and he was told to do it, so he did it,” said Estep’s widow, Barbara Barker, 62, of Piketon.
Barker received compensation for her husband’s death, but it didn’t come until after the federal government admitted for the first time in 1999 that it harmed its atomic workers.
The environmental damage at Piketon was harder to hide. The same hazards that sickened workers also poisoned the environment and continue to threaten future generations.
Along with the Mound Laboratory in Miamisburg, the plants at Fernald and Piketon once played indispensable roles in the manufacture of Cold War nuclear weapons. But the environmental footprint each of them left behind will never fully be erased, even after the billions of dollars spent cleaning contaminated groundwater, soil, waterways and buildings.
The end-date for monitoring the pollution at Piketon: never.
William E. Murphie, manager of the Energy Department office overseeing cleanup at Piketon and a sister plant in Paducah, Ky., declined to address Piketon’s history of mishandling hazardous materials.
“We take a lot of lumps for the past processes and, face it, mistakes that were made,” he said. “We’ve learned from the past. We’re all smarter than we were in the past.”
Murphie said the department remains committed to the cleanup and trying new solutions if those now in place don’t work.
“DOE is very proud of the cleanup program here,” he said. “We believe we have accomplished a lot.”
Worker safety a low priority
From 1954-2001, the Piketon plant provided a ticket to the middle class for some 10,000 residents in Appalachian Ohio. A series of government contractors enriched uranium there, first for nuclear weapons and later to power nuclear reactors.
“The focus back then was to win the Cold War. Handling the waste and avoiding contamination was pretty low on the list,” said Brian Blair, an Ohio EPA supervisor who participated in the state’s first inspection of the site in 1986. “They were not managed even according to the best technology available at that time. That’s why we have many of the contaminants out there.”
The now-defunct Goodyear Atomic Corp. operated the Piketon plant for its first 32 years. A subsidiary of Martin Marietta took over management in 1986, followed by Lockheed Martin in 1995. The government privatized its enrichment operations in 1998, turning them over to USEC Inc. of Bethesda, Md.
In the early years, few environmental regulations existed across the United States and the hazards of chemical and radioactive materials weren’t fully understood. By the 1970s, the government began regulating the handling and disposal of hazardous materials, and took action against companies that didn’t follow the rules.
But unlike private companies, the Energy Department was allowed to set its own environmental standards, at least when it came to nuclear facilities such as Piketon. Energy officials, in effect, said, “trust us.” Until the late 1980s, environmental regulators had no jurisdiction — or access — to the Piketon plant, and even now secrecy cloaks many plant practices.
All nuclear facilities must keep some practices confidential for reasons of national security. But the secrecy and self-regulation at Piketon veiled an astounding level of environmental destruction.
In 2000, the Energy Department secretary launched a massive investigation that documented the plant’s grim environmental record: mishandling of hazardous and radioactive material, failure to properly monitor environmental emissions or workers’ exposure to radiation, ignoring safety rules. The investigators identified 400 accidental releases of uranium gas or toxic fluorine since the 1950s, although they said the true total was unknown due to poor record keeping.
The worst of what the investigators found occurred in the plant’s first 25 years, but careless and harmful practices continued even as the plant changed operators. For example:
• Two separate incidents — in 1982 and 1993 — resulted in the airborne release of 19 curies of radioactive technetium, a cancer-causing product of nuclear fission that escaped as workers cleaned equipment. “That’s a significant amount, and it’s certainly not desirable to have those kinds of releases in the air,” Blair said.
• Uranium-contaminated solvents were burned in an incinerator designed for solids until 1986, when the Ohio EPA ordered it shut down. Maria Galanti, the agency’s on-site coordinator, said soil around the incinerator site is radioactive at least 12 feet deep.
• The Energy Department didn’t stop pumping waste into the plant’s worst source of off-site and groundwater contamination until 1988. That unlined pond held everything from PCBs and the solvent trichloroethylene to radioactive uranium, technetium and plutonium — toxins that leached into groundwater and the Little Beaver Creek, a tributary of the Scioto River.
People who live near the plant say they had no idea all this was going on. Children swam in the creeks, and churches held baptisms in Big Run Creek. That same creek runs past two unlined landfills and near a polluted groundwater plume as it passes through the plant grounds on its way to the Scioto River.
Clyde Blanton has lived next to the plant’s southern border since 1970. Not until the late 1980s, when residents near the Fernald plant began fighting for a cleanup there, did Blanton and others start asking questions about Piketon.
He said plant officials assured people it was safe.
“Now they’ve spent a billion bucks cleaning up,” said Blanton, 64. “That tells you it’s not safe. Somebody lied.”
Inspectors react with shock
The cover over Piketon’s secrets began to lift in 1986, when Ohio EPA inspectors were allowed inside the plant for the first time. What they saw shocked them.
In one of the plant’s more egregious practices dating to the 1980s, plant operators tilled highly radioactive oils into soil, figuring the solvents would degrade over time. They didn’t take into account that radiation takes millions, even billions of years to decay.
Those plots, now capped, are one of several sources of contaminants in the plant’s second-largest groundwater plume.
“You had some of the best minds in the U.S. government working on enriching uranium and this is the best they could do with their waste?” Galanti said.
Plant operators dumped radioactive materials, toxic chemicals and dangerous solvents into unlined landfills and even discharged radioactive and chemical wastes into ditches leading to the Little Beaver Creek. Galanti described the ditches as “screaming hot” and said they were one of the Ohio EPA’s top cleanup priorities.
The solvent trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen, remains the site’s most pervasive groundwater contaminant.
“They’d go dump solvents out the back door,” Galanti said. “And taking drums of degreasers and volatile organics and dumping them in a big pit.”
Even after they were allowed to visit the plant, Ohio EPA officials were frustrated in their effort to force a cleanup. Officials at federal nuclear facilities had long argued that they were exempt from environmental rules concerning the handling and disposal of all hazardous materials, including any radioactive material.
“They thought they were above the law,” said Jack Van Kley, the lead attorney in a federal court case that the state of Ohio filed in 1989 against the Energy Department.
As a result of that case, state regulators won limited authority over the department’s operations at Piketon. A consent decree issued by the court required the Energy Department to follow state and federal rules for hazardous materials. But the department retained oversight of its handling of purely radioactive material.
A separate agreement was reached with the U.S. EPA, and cleanup began the same year.
Taxpayers are footing the cleanup bill because government contracts protected the contractors who ran the plant against damages, said Energy Department spokeswoman Laura Schachter. Four of those companies are defunct but their parent companies, Goodyear Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp., are still in business. Goodyear spokesman Keith Price had no comment for this story. Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Gail E. Rymer said environmental investigations were already underway when the company’s subsidiaries managed the site and those companies also assisted with cleanup.
“Since we took over the plant we have had an exemplary safety and environmental record,” said USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle.
So far, the government has spent $1 billion to dig up soil, empty ponds, cap unlined toxic landfills, treat groundwater and haul contaminants away — more than 43,000 containers of hazardous, radioactive and other waste and 8,400 tons of radioactive scrap metal.
Each year, the plant treats 28.5 million gallons of contaminated groundwater, said Sandra Childers, spokeswoman for LATA/Parallax Portsmouth, which last year replaced Bechtel Jacobs Co. as the Energy Department’s cleanup contractor.
The 20,000 cylinders of depleted uranium hexafluoride — enrichment waste that piled up on the site over 50 years — will sit until they can be converted to a more stable form and shipped away. A conversion plant now under construction would eliminate the backlog by 2026, but more waste could be coming. USEC wants to replace the old gaseous diffusion plant with the American Centrifuge Plant, a high-tech uranium enrichment facility that would annually generate about 1,300 cylinders of waste.
Piketon is one of more than 100 polluted Energy Department sites across the United States. The department is the government’s worst polluter, with a cleanup bill estimated at $35 billion, according to a 2004 U.S. EPA study.
But although the Piketon site is far from the Energy Department’s worst offender, the sheer size of three massive enrichment buildings complicates cleanup and inflates the cost. Inside those buildings, giant machines heated uranium hexafluoride and forced it through filters to boost the concentration of the uranium isotope needed for reactor fuel and weapons.
Some of the most dangerous cleanup work is occurring in those structures. Under tight security, workers are removing uranium deposits that cling to surfaces inside equipment and 600 miles of piping. They must use extreme care because mishandling the radioactive deposits could cause a small nuclear reaction — a “criticality” — that could kill workers and spread radiation through the area.
“We’ve never had a criticality event, and I have no reason to believe that we ever will have a criticality event,” Murphie said.
Groundwater contamination a sore subject
The Piketon cleanup hasn’t ended disputes between the Energy Department and its regulators. The Ohio EPA has fought Energy officials over everything from what to do with the thousands of contaminated cylinders at the site to the department’s efforts to ease groundwater standards.
Memos obtained by the Dayton Daily News outline Ohio EPA officials’ complaints about disputes over cleanup methods, wasteful spending by Energy Department contractors and botched cleanup jobs — in one instance allowing polluted groundwater to spread because of poor construction of a barrier wall.
Murphie declined to comment on the memos.
Groundwater contamination has been a flashpoint. In 1999, the Ohio EPA rejected an Energy Department attempt to cut disposal costs by loosening rules for the suspected carcinogen trichloroethylene, which permeates groundwater and has proven difficult to remove.
More recently, the department pushed for a reduced groundwater cleanup standard, arguing that the lesser standard is appropriate because no one drinks the water underneath the plant site.
“We represent the taxpayers. Our goal here is to make sure we are doing cost-effective, smart cleanup,” Murphie said. “The regulators represent the taxpayers but also the regulators represent the regulations.”
Ohio EPA officials are firm: There will be no reduced groundwater standard.
“We can’t allow unlimited groundwater contamination just because they say it won’t be used. That is a resource, and it does migrate and move,” said Ken Dewey, the agency’s southeast district assistant chief.
The latest point of friction between the Energy Department and its watchdogs involves the three enrichment buildings. The debate over what to do with them involves questions of money, jurisdiction and, ultimately, jobs.
Ohio EPA officials want the buildings — and the equipment inside of them — to be cleaned and demolished. It’s unclear yet whether they can be safely buried at Piketon or must be shipped at great cost to disposal sites in Utah or Nevada.
Murphie has suggested still another possibility, that the contaminated buildings stay in place indefinitely under a long-term surveillance plan. But Dewey argues that leaving the structures in place will make cleanup more expensive in the long run because “we’ll have to drill under and around buildings” to investigate and clean contaminated soil and groundwater.
“I hope the federal government doesn’t make that choice,” he said.
Even if Energy officials decide to demolish the buildings, there is one major obstacle: money.
A fund for cleaning enrichment plants in Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky will fall as much as $5.7 billion short of what is needed to clean all three sites, according to a 2004 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The Energy Department’s five-year cleanup plan shows a decline in funding for the Piketon cleanup and no money for demolition of the enrichment buildings.
Local officials, who have watched jobs disappear through the years, worry that a stalled cleanup plan will reduce current employment and derail efforts to redevelop the site.
“Now we’re threatened,” said Blaine Beekman, executive director of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s like every day there’s a new chapter, a new battle to fight.”
Concerned neighbors take cancer survey
After denying for years that its nuclear operations harmed anyone, the federal government in 2000 launched a program to compensate atomic workers sickened by workplace exposures. So far, more than 2,900 Piketon workers or their survivors have applied for the money.
But if people inside the plant got sick, what about those outside?
In 1994, a local residents group went door-to-door and identified 247 cancer cases within a six-mile radius of the plant. The data, however, was incomplete. The volunteers did not collect information on important risk factors, such as smoking status and occupational exposures, and failed to confirm the diagnoses with medical records.
“These limitations make it difficult to generate meaningful cancer rates from these data,” a federal health assessment concluded two years later. That assessment, done by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in response to residents’ concerns, found that the plant posed “no off-site threat to public health.”
Critics were quick to point out inaccuracies in the government report, and continue to dispute the overall finding.
“I think they’re wrong with the risk,” said Vina Colley, president of a local watchdog group and a former Piketon employee fighting for compensation for illnesses she believes were caused by workplace exposures.
Ohio EPA officials say the worst of the plant’s contamination is confined to the federal land, in part because thick bedrock slows the spread of the poisoned groundwater. They also say the plant’s environmental record improved in recent years as operators adopted modern waste-handling practices and began following rules governing discharges to air and waterways.
Still, evidence of off-site contamination remained even after enrichment operations shut down in 2001. According to its most recent environmental reports, the Energy Department in 2003 and 2004 found small amounts of radioactive contamination outside the plant.
Tests on two area deer killed by cars showed traces of uranium isotopes in the livers of both and in the muscle of one. Traces of uranium were also found in milk and egg samples from area farms, and in three vegetables taken from the gardens of plant neighbors. Air, water and sediment tests also revealed small amounts of radioactive uranium, plutonium or technetium. And three fish from area waterways had traces of uranium or plutonium. Because plutonium rarely occurs naturally, there would appear to be only one possible source: the plant.
Energy officials say none of the amounts are large enough to pose a health threat.
Activists accuse the department of minimizing the threat of off-site radioactive contamination. Noting that a fish from the Little Beaver Creek contained trace amounts of plutonium, Elisa Young of the Sierra Club’s Appalachian Group asked, “Would you eat that fish?”
Although the radiation amounts detected in recent years are small, Galanti said it’s impossible to know how many contaminants were carried off by the wind or waterways over the years.
“It went somewhere,” she said. “We all live downstream in one aspect or another.”
With polluted government nuclear facilities dotting the map from coast to coast, Galanti said the abysmal environmental record has left a legacy of phenomenal costs and immense responsibilities for future generations.
“How do we monitor this stuff in perpetuity?” she said. “That’s a relic of the Cold War and our thirst for energy.”
Thank you for reading the Dayton Daily News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to exclusive deals and newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Dayton Daily News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.