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Ohio Facility's 1,000 Employees Face Bleak Prospects : Death, Illness Haunt Uranium Plant Neighbors

April 16, 1989|BETH GRACE | Associated Press

ROSS, Ohio — Death and illness have become preoccupations for Doris Clawson, who lives with her husband, Marvin, in a farmhouse 4 miles north of a uranium processing plant that has a history of pollution.

"Look at this list," she said, offering a worn, handwritten roster of the names of relatives, friends and neighbors who have cancer or have already died of it. The list, covering both sides of a sheet of notebook paper, notes the deaths since 1959 of 62 people and illnesses of 13 others who live within 1 1/2 miles of the plant.

"This is just a tiny bit of what's gone on. There's my mother's name. She's had colon and rectum cancer. She lives right next to that place."

Clawson, 59, has survived three bouts with cancer in the last 27 years. She and her husband, also 59, blame the Feed Materials Production Center in Fernald for many of the cancers and related deaths in the area since the plant was built in 1951.

Clawson herself has had three operations, including a mastectomy in 1983 and other surgeries to remove cancerous growths from lymph nodes and her throat. She lived on the family's 214-acre farm on the plant's west side until she married in 1954. The Clawsons moved into their farmhouse in 1959.

Department of Energy

The U.S. Department of Energy plant, on 1,050 acres 18 miles northwest of Cincinnati, is one of 16 nationwide that produces materials for nuclear weapons. Several plants are in various stages of being shut down while public health and safety problems are investigated, and the energy department wants to close Fernald by 1994.

Workers are worried that production could end sooner. The union's contract, ratified in December after a two-month strike, requires only two weeks' notice of a shutdown. Prospects for the 1,000 employees are bleak.

"People who have left here and looked for other jobs have been told outright that they won't be hired because they're a risk," said David Day, head of the Fernald Atomic Trades and Labor Council, a coalition of 14 unions. "You know, they hire them today and, 20 years from now, they'll have cancer because they worked here."

The energy department and the plant's former operator, National Lead of Ohio Inc., first came under public fire in 1984, when officials announced that 300 pounds of mildly radioactive dust had leaked from the plant four times that year. The government has since acknowledged that at least 395,000 pounds of radioactive uranium oxide dust and other pollutants has escaped from the plant since 1951.

Last year, it was admitted in court documents that energy department officials had told National Lead to continue production without regard for environmental laws.

Westinghouse Materials Co. took over the plant Jan. 1, 1986.

State officials and environmentalists also are concerned about how the more than 550,000 tons of radioactive waste stored at the plant--some of it from the World War II Manhattan Project. The plant rests above the Great Miami River aquifer, which runs beneath half the state.

Wells Tested

The Ohio Department of Health has taken 143 requests from people within 10 miles of the plant who want their wells tested. None of the 70 wells tested were found to have radioactive contamination, said department spokesman Scott Golden.

In addition, an organization called Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health has filed a $300-million lawsuit against National Lead on behalf of 14,000 people who live and work within 5 miles of the plant. A federal judge ruled in February that the former operator would be liable if a jury decides the plant caused emotional distress and depressed property values. The suit is pending.

Hamilton County plans to reassess property next year. Robert Grauvogel of the auditor's office said: "Funny as it seems, there is no evidence to indicate that property values have been severely hurt."

Marvin Clawson has never worked at the plant or suffered ill effects, but he is adamant in his criticism of the plant and its operators.

"There have been massive radiation releases from that place, and nobody told us nothing until 1984. They dropped a bomb on us. It's been a 40-year, continuous bang," he said. "What kind of government have we got?"

The Department of Energy has launched a 10-year, $5-billion effort to clean up uranium contamination on the surface. Site manager Jim Reafsnyder said the cleanup is proceeding well, but much work remains to improve the plant in the eyes of the public.

Under a court-enforceable order agreed upon in December, the state will oversee the energy department cleanup of hazardous wastes at Fernald, but not the nuclear wastes. The state and federal governments are negotiating a cleanup plan that is likely to include treating and removing contaminated soil, emptying six storage pits that threaten the Great Miami aquifer and removing thousands of barrels.

Federal officials have said a complete cleanup could be impossible because of the extent of contamination.

Independent Agency

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