March 5, 2000
100 samples reveal beryllium at DOE site
By Joe Walker
During the past decade, traces of the highly toxic metal beryllium have been found in more than 100 groundwater samples at and near the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, mainly around scrap yards and a building where precious-metal recovery reportedly took place.
The findings - starting in routine sampling and later concentrating on known areas of contamination - could be integral as the Department of Energy continues its probe of nuclear weapons work at the plant during the Cold War.
Later this year, Congress is expected to pass legislation to compensate government and contract workers who got sick from beryllium, but until recently DOE said there was no evidence it was used at Paducah. The department now says some past Paducah workers could qualify if there is a link between illness and beryllium. Highly toxic if inhaled or ingested, beryllium poses the greatest threat to workers who breathe it in dust from milling work.
Scientists doing a DOE-sponsored health study of Paducah plant workers say they can easily test for beryllium in the blood if they can pinpoint whom to test. That requires having "sufficient evidence" that beryllium was used at Paducah, said Dr. Steven Markowitz, an epidemiologist heading the study, which has primarily dealt with radiation exposure.
"We need departments, buildings, job titles, things like that," he said. "Once we have that information, then we'll request DOE to add beryllium testing to our program."
The sampling data reviewed by the Sun came from monitoring wells not used for drinking. However, all the results exceeded .004 parts per million, the level at which public water supplies must treat to remove beryllium.
Some findings barely above the level came in 1993 and 1994 from monitoring wells in the state wildlife management area near Ogden Landing Road and on Tennessee Valley Authority land north of the plant. Since then, DOE has provided scores of homes near the plant with municipal water because traces of two other plant-related contaminants - trichloroethylene, a degreaser, and technetium-99, a contaminant in spent nuclear fuel - were found in wells at a few of the homes.
Mark York, spokesman for the Kentucky Natural Resources Cabinet, said the state has reviewed all the beryllium findings. "In essence, even though there is a risk present, the risk to human health has been addressed because there is now a safe water source," he said.
Conducted by DOE contractors, the sampling showed many results barely above the drinking water standard, but some on the west side of the plant's fenced area were above .09 parts per million - nearly 25 times higher than the standard. Those readings were near old uranium and metal scrap yards in the extreme northwest corner of the plant in the vicinity of the so-called "drum mountain" scrap pile and two classified burial yards that may contain old bomb parts.
Although DOE has not established a link between the groundwater contamination and the scrap piles, it says beryllium could have been used many years ago in the building and dismantling of nuclear bomb components.
"We're trying to find out the extent of beryllium use at the site," said DOE spokesman Walter Perry. "We hope to find out what the big picture is, and we're having to go back and reconstruct history."
Beryllium is linked to chronic lung disease among 500 to 1,000 workers at other DOE plants and firms that processed it. In July, DOE announced a program to compensate workers who contracted beryllium disease, saying there was no evidence beryllium was used at Paducah.
But the department recently reversed that stance, noting that beryllium may have been used during the Cold War in the plant machine shop to coat nuclear weaponry for defense facilities. A silvery-gray metal, it is useful in weapons production because of its strength, light weight, relatively high melting point and machinability.
Last month, DOE issued an employee memo noting that Paducah plant machine shop workers could have used beryllium to coat weapons parts for defense facilities. It also published an investigative report saying beryllium-copper components may have been machined or cleaned for customers in the 1960s.
The report cited a 1968 memo indicating that a beryllium-contaminated furnace from another defense plant was cleaned "without personnel exposure" in what is now the plant laboratory. "In general, there was no evidence of airborne beryllium or overexposures," the report said.
Perry said beryllium was not prominently mentioned in the report because the investigation did not deal with classified work done during the Cold War. DOE now is looking at weapons-related work and including beryllium in the probe, he said, noting that records are sketchy or nonexistent.
"Many former workers have been extremely helpful in telling us what went on in certain buildings and what sort of waste was disposed of in burial grounds and landfills," Perry said. "That helps us regain the corporate memory that has not been readily available in documents and records from the past."
One of the few beryllium-related documents is an old memo to DOE headquarters from its Oak Ridge, Tenn., operations staff that oversees work at Paducah. Mark Griffon, lead health physicist for the worker health study, said he saw the memo and guessed it to have been written in the early 1980s. He said it was vague but reported that beryllium was present at the Paducah plant in unknown amounts.
Plant sampling records show that in 1996, beryllium was found 43 times in groundwater in the northwestern corner of the fenced plant area near uranium and scrap metal burial yards. Covering about 26 acres, the area has roughly 65,000 tons of scrap metal in seven fenced sections.
Other findings exceeding the drinking water standard in 1996 were around a uranium scrap burial yard in the northwestern corner of the plant. The metal is pyrophoric, which means it may spontaneously ignite on contact with the air.
Beryllium also was detected above the drinking water standard 42 times in 1997 near a cleaning building in the middle of the plant. Most samples were slightly above the standard, and some others were seven to 12 times higher. Used for decades to clean and decontaminate parts and equipment, the building is a leading source of groundwater contamination containing the degreaser trichloroethylene.
In 1998, beryllium exceeded the standard in 22 samples on the west side of the plant in the vicinity of the burial grounds. The highest reading was about seven times above the standard.
Beryllium has been found less frequently in plant soil, and most of the nearly 8,000 samples have read near .69 parts per million, the amount believed to be naturally in the ground, said Craig Jones, environmental engineer for Bechtel Jacobs, DOE's lead cleanup contractor.
Jones said fewer than 10 samples have been "well above background" near the burial grounds in the northwest corner of the plant and a maintenance building. The building may have been an area where nuclear bomb parts were milled or scrap parts dismantled to recover precious metals.
Although the state does not consider beryllium in plant soil dangerous
to workers, there will be a risk assessment of the metal and many other
soil contaminants, York said. "If there is a problem, it will be addressed."