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New York Trail Includes Site of Plutonium Spill : Controversial Hiking Route May Pose Radiation Threat, Citizens' Group Says

July 20, 1986|MARY ESCH | Associated Press

PAWLING, N.Y. — Hikers who stray from a new stretch of the Appalachian Trail may emerge from the oaks and laurel to find a shining lake echoing with the honks of Canada geese.

To get there, however, they would have to surmount a rocky spine of land that hides the lake from the trail and pass signs posted every 50 feet bearing an ominous warning: "Property of U.S. Government. No Entry Beyond This Point. Potential Radioactive Danger."

The placid pond, dimpled by bass, has been a source of debate since the National Park Service bought it and 1,100 surrounding acres for almost $1 million in 1979--seven years after a plutonium spill contaminated the wooded shore.

The 55-acre pond was named Nuclear Lake by United Nuclear Corp., whose decaying concrete buildings are partly hidden by overgrown yews along one shore. United Nuclear operated the complex, a private research facility licensed by the government to experiment with bomb-grade uranium and plutonium, from 1958 to 1973.

Plutonium Dust Explosion

In 1972, the surrounding woods were contaminated when a chemical explosion scattered radioactive plutonium dust, considered by scientists to be the most toxic form of plutonium because of the threat of lung cancer if inhaled.

The plant was closed, the plutonium was cleaned up, truckloads of contaminated soil were carried away and the decommissioned site was cleared by the federal government for unrestricted use in 1975, said Robert Leone, field representative for the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference.

Questions about whether the site was really safe arose shortly after the National Park Service bought it and started planning a recreation area.

Part of Appalachian Trail

The purchase was part of a plan to move sections of the venerable Appalachian Trail off paved roads and buy other sections that cross private land. In 1978, Congress authorized spending $90 million to buy land for the trail, which runs 2,092 miles from Georgia to Maine and was completed in 1937. About 800 miles of trail were on roads or private land then; about 243 miles remain to be acquired, according to Chuck Rinaldi, head of the acquisition project.

Of the 32 miles of Appalachian Trail winding through Dutchess County, about 50 miles north of New York City, 25 miles was along roads in 1979, Leone said. When the Nuclear Lake section opens this summer, the trail will run along roads for only two miles in the county, mostly where it crosses bridges.

"Before, anyone who wasn't doing an end-to-end hike of the Appalachian Trail didn't bother hiking it in New York state because it was just a lot of road walking," said Ron Rosen, chairman of the Dutchess County Appalachian Trail Management Committee. "Now, it's almost all off the road, and we expect a lot more people will use the trail in New York."

A local citizens' group, however, is questioning the wisdom of opening the three-mile section of trail near Nuclear Lake. Members of the Harlem Valley Alliance say it is immoral as well as unsafe to use a former nuclear weapons laboratory for a public playground.

Signs Ineffective Warning

"We feel opening the trail will only encourage people to go to the facility itself and the lake, which has not been tested for contamination," said Robert Young of the Harlem Valley Alliance. "They have posted warning signs, but a lot of concerned citizens feel that won't keep people away from what is a very attractive lake."

Members of the alliance explored the abandoned buildings in 1979, when the Park Service set up the Nuclear Lake Management Committee to plan the recreation area, Young said.

The alliance found file cabinets filled with memos about waste disposal and handling of radioactive materials, Young said. The management committee studied them and concluded that radioactive waste might have been dumped into the lake and sewers. It recommended thorough testing before proceeding with park plans.

A site-clearance committee set up by the Park Service in 1980 compiled recommendations from scientists, government agencies and universities regarding safety and testing. The Park Service hired contractors to test the lake and surrounding area in 1984.

Radiation Found

Questions about the lake area lingered as testing proceeded haltingly. As recently as February, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered removal of a radioactive "hot spot" discovered by volunteers with Geiger counters in the former waste disposal building, said Fred Gerty Jr., a state forester who is a volunteer on the county Appalachian Trail Management Committee. "As far as we know, it's cleaned up now," said Gerty.

The Nuclear Lake Management Committee was satisfied with tests indicating that the trail area, which is 1,200 feet from the lake, was safe, Leone said. Tests of soil and vegetation in 1984 showed that radiation was no higher than normal background levels.

The committee agreed that the trail should be opened with the conditions that warning signs be posted around the lake, that brochures be printed telling hikers of the area's history, and bulletin boards be erected at the trailheads to post the brochures and offer an alternative route along the road.

Further Testing Set

In addition, the committee demanded more tests to determine if sewer and lake sediments are contaminated and if barrels of waste have been sunk in the lake. Leone said $80,000 in federal money was recently approved for those tests, which are to be done by a contractor this summer.

The Harlem Valley Alliance, however, would prefer that the area remain closed until all tests are finished.

"So far, every time they go in and do more testing, they find something new," said Young.

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