Cleaning up radioactive waste sparks fears in Armstrong County

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APOLLO — For many people who lived for years beside the smokestacks and dumping grounds of this area’s two Cold War-era nuclear fuel factories, there is no good next step for the dangerous radioactive and chemical waste left behind.

Mary Ann Hall, whose 24-year-old daughter Tina died in her arms on Christmas morning 1992, is still angry at the loss of her first-born daughter to leukemia, still angry at the companies whose radioactive pollution she believed caused the cancer. But while she wants justice, she also fears what a cleanup might unearth, and how the lives of her former neighbors might be endangered by what comes to light.

“I don’t know what’s safer for them,” said Ms. Hall, who said she used to sweep the Apollo factory’s uranium ash from her porches so that Tina and her younger daughter Lisa, then 4 1/2 and 3 years old, could play outside. “I want them to get justice but if it’s dug up and gets into the air again, I don’t know what it’s going to do.

“I just feel it’s going to make a mess again, and we’ve had enough messes in this small community.”

Apollo and nearby Parks in Armstrong County, whose residents have grappled for decades with the legacy of the factories operated here by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Company, and later by Atlantic Richfield Co. and Babcock & Wilcox Co., are once again the site of questions about how to handle the 44-acre property that lies 32 miles northeast of Pittsburgh and just a few dozen feet from the banks of the Kiskiminetas River.

From the late 1950s until 1983, the Apollo factory produced highly enriched uranium and the Parks facility produced plutonium to fuel commercial nuclear reactors and nuclear submarines, as well as bomb-grade material for federal government contracts. Waste from those operations and others was buried in a series of 10 massive, unlined trenches atop an abandoned coal mine, according to regulations then in force under the now-defunct Atomic Energy Commission.

After legislation was passed in 2002 requiring cleanup at the site, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began excavating the site in 2012, only to stop within a few weeks after contractors uncovered larger-than-unexpected amounts of “complex materials,” such as uranium and plutonium. Those materials, including potentially bomb-grade material, are vastly greater in volume and potency than the corps was led to believe by the incomplete records left behind by NUMEC and its successors, according to a report released last week by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Office of Inspector General in response to questions from U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.

“The [Inspector General’s] report makes clear that we have substantial work to do to ensure the safe and expeditious clean-up of this site,” Mr. Casey said in a statement on Thursday. “I intend to urge relevant agencies to move forward immediately with the memorandum of understanding to allow this clean-up to continue. I also intend to push for adequate funding to ensure [the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, or FUSRAP] has the resources it needs to get the job done.”

The memorandum of understanding must be agreed to by officials from the corps, the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and discussions between the agencies are ongoing, according to the senator’s office. Meanwhile, paying for the cleanup, which could cost as much as $500 million because of the dangerously potent materials being cleaned up, is overseen by the corps and will go through the appropriations process during the fiscal year 2015 budget cycle, the senator’s aides said.

That’s all well and good, but the site should have been cleaned up 10 years ago, said Joanne and Jack Bologna, who watched truckloads of waste from the site being trucked past their house on Airport Road to a nearby storage warehouse — until the work suddenly stopped.

“We’re going to die before it ever gets started,” Mrs. Bologna, a former second-grade teacher now in her mid-80s who said she lost two former students to brain cancer when they were still teenagers.

Mr. Bologna, along with a small group of neighbors, spent much of the 1980s working to block Babcock & Wilcox’s attempt to establish nuclear waste incinerators at the site. After years of meetings, court hearings, phone calls, letter-writing and legal wrangling, the group called Save Our Children not only blocked the incinerators but also pushed through passage of a local ordinance setting strict factory emission limits in Apollo.

Now, Mr. Bologna said, officials seem too afraid of what they might find to clean up the mess left behind by NUMEC and Babcock & Wilcox. And Apollo residents don’t seem to understand what they’re living next to, and don’t seem inclined to do anything about it.

“They really don’t know anything, and they don’t act,” said Mr. Bologna, a former executive at Pittsburgh Plate Glass who is now in his mid-80s. “They walk on eggshells all the time.”

They would ignore the waste site at their peril, said local activist Patty Ameno of Apollo, who has suffered from two brain tumors and cervical cancer, was a plaintiff in a successful lawsuit against Babcock & Wilcox and has fought to clean up the site for more than 25 years. The 44-acre parcel is only a portion of the 193 acres of the original, licensed, deeded property and waste burials were made on all of it, she said.

Underground, she said, lies a dangerous cocktail of radioactive material, cancer-causing chemicals such as tricholorethane, explosive chemicals, unexploded munitions like the live mortar found in eroded soil on the site several years ago, and flammable methane from the mine shaft that underlies it all.

A vacuumed containment building around the site could be used to minimize the escape of fugitive dust and eliminate further groundwater contamination, she said. And while she understands neighbors’ worries, Ms. Ameno believes it’s not safe to leave those materials to percolate and potentially cause disaster, such as a coal mine fire that experts have told her would contaminate the countryside’s air and water within a radius of 28 miles or more.

That possibility is a “real, true threat of a nightmare I shudder at,” she said.

“This site must be cleaned up and precautions taken, to include the entire original, deeded property and the mine beneath, where they might have tucked away a few things they forgot about or didn’t document,” Ms. Ameno said. “The government dropped the ball as regulators years ago, and they now have a chance to redeem themselves.”


Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-608-3618 or aschaarsmith@gmail.com.

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