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A park grows on once-radioactive Ohio land

Residents take pride in forcing the cleanup of a plant that processed uranium for weapons.

January 14, 2007|Lisa Cornwell | Associated Press

CINCINNATI — A bird's nest in the tall grasses of a wetland symbolizes the end of a two-decade struggle to clean up a site contaminated by radioactive material from a 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 to clean up 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, which 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, or FRESH, 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 residents that is scheduled to end next year 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 Gary Stegner, an Energy Department spokesman.

"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.

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