Residents of the tiny Armstrong County town of Parks learned there was a radioactive waste disposal site in their midst more than 20 years ago, and they’ve been waiting for a cleanup ever since.
A report released this month by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmed a disturbing finding, made two years ago, that the site contains more dangerous material than originally believed, including weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. As a result of that discovery, cleanup was halted in 2012 and a new plan is being developed, which means work won’t resume until at least next January.
Disappointment and concern is nothing new in the Kiskimere neighborhood that borders the 44-acre Shallow Land Disposal Area, near the banks of the Kiskiminetas River. There, during the 1960s and 1970s, radioactive waste was buried, apparently in conformance with standards of the day, in 10 unlined trenches — some as shallow as 4 feet, others as deep as 20 feet.
The new report, prepared in response to questions posed by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, the Pennsylvania Democrat, was prepared by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s inspector general. As Mr. Casey said in releasing it, the report “confirms an abysmal lack of records and raises serious concerns about the NRC’s oversight” of the dump.
In a related case, residents have sued, claiming that while the two plants that fed the site were operating — a plutonium factory and a uranium processing facility — they emitted large amounts of radioactive material into the air. That matter is pending in federal court in Pittsburgh.
In the meantime, the buried waste sits. The Army Corps of Engineers says it is safely contained and the corps feels confident that it is better to take time and prepare an appropriate site cleanup than to proceed immediately and risk disturbing the contents. The total job is expected to take 10 years.
Revelations of just how poorly this situation has been handled for a generation do not inspire much confidence. It is imperative going forward that the NRC, the corps and the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp., which is conducting the work, put sufficient resources into this project to get it done right, with adequate safety measures, as quickly as possible.
The residents of Parks have been waiting far too long.