Armstrong radiation report cites years of 'large' releases

Expert chronicles releases of contaminants in Armstrong County

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An expert's report on shuttered nuclear fuels plants in Armstrong County provides new detail on allegations that operators Babcock & Wilcox Co. and Atlantic Richfield Co. knew about worst-in-the-nation releases of radioactive materials that spanned decades, but opted not to do enough to protect neighbors from cancer-causing dust.

The 37-page report by Harvard University Radiation Safety Officer Joseph P. Ring, who teaches at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts, was filed late Tuesday in a series of federal lawsuits against the companies by about 90 cancer victims. Mr. Ring found "numerous large-scale releases of ionizing radiation into the neighboring environment" during the operating lives of the plants in Apollo and Parks Township, which spanned 1958 through 1984, adding up to "the largest quantity ... of any nuclear facility in the United States."

The effects continue to bedevil the Armstrong County communities.

"A lot of people have lost not only their entire savings but their homes," due to the health effects and loss of property value caused by the plants, said Patricia Ameno, of Leechburg, who sued the companies in a previous round of litigation and spoke Wednesday. "Their families have been torn apart by illnesses and deaths."

Mr. Ring wrote that the trouble began with the construction of the Apollo plant, which opened in 1958 as a research facility for uranium enrichment and became a production facility for uranium fuel. The building was never sealed off from the outside environment, and internal ventilation systems were "outdated and inappropriately designed," he wrote.

Coupled with the fact that it "should never have been located in a residential neighborhood," he wrote, the design flaws resulted in dramatic radiation exposure.

A 1963 fire at the Apollo plant, he wrote, exposed the lungs of people nearby to radiation doses from 2 to 280 times then-permissible levels. In 1967, according to internal documents quoted by Mr. Ring, "during incinerator operation the airborne concentration outside the Apollo plant averages 4,000 times the maximum allowable."

A 1968 internal memo quoted by Mr. Ring said the plant's "exhaust system needs re-engineered. ... Changing filters does not solve the problem, most often the condition is worse after a filter has been changed."

The Atomic Energy Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sometimes cited the facilities for violations, but the problems persisted. A 1969 memo by top officials of the operating company acknowledged that discharges of liquids from the plant "might produce undesirable environmental effects" and could prompt a government crackdown.

A top official in 1974 viewed memos on the facility and wrote that if they were accurate, "we are guilty of gross irresponsibility in continuing to operate our uranium facilities." He threatened to shut them down, but the company didn't stop making highly enriched uranium there until 1978, and it ended all production in 1984, according to documents quoted by Mr. Ring.

Apollo used state and federal grants to clean up the site, with most of the work done in 2009 and 2010 and state approvals granted in 2011.

"We are in the process of putting an access road which will hopefully entice some kind of interested party or business to develop it," borough manager Lori Weig-Tamasy said. Because of past contamination, it can't be used for housing, retail or parks, she said.

She said officials have "a very deep desire to see that property developed for the good of the community, for the good of the taxpayers of the community who suffered the loss of a viable business."

The 85-acre Parks facility made plutonium fuel and highly enriched uranium, and it was built farther from residences. That site also has been the subject of a lengthy cleanup effort.

A prior lawsuit against Babcock & Wilcox and Atlantic Richfield ended with an $80 million settlement for cancers and losses of property value suffered by more than 300 plaintiffs.

The current lawsuits, filed in 2010 by workers and neighbors of the plants, are being handled by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gary L. Lancaster. Plaintiffs' attorneys Pittsburgh-based Goldberg, Persky & White and South Carolina-based Motley Rice LLC filed Mr. Ring's report along with four other expert opinions on the spread of radioactive agents through the communities, and the links between such materials and cancer.

A spokesman for Babcock & Wilcox said the company had not yet reviewed Mr. Ring's report.

"I grew up less than 100 feet across the street from the plant," said Ms. Ameno, 60, a retired military employee who added that she has been through uterine cancer and two surgeries for brain tumors, and has another brain tumor.

"I saw the town I grew up in ... disintegrating, just like the bricks on that plant," she said. "What did they conceivably gain by siting this here?"

She said she helped connect the current plaintiffs with their attorneys, and has lobbied for better laws and enforcement. She calls what the companies did "criminal -- plain, outright criminal."

She also faults the regulators who allowed the plants to operate. "While [the companies] pulled the trigger, the government drove the getaway car."

region - neigh_north

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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