National Sacrifice Zones
Those of us who live downwind and downstream from the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio have long suspected that a strong connection exists between the seemingly high incidence of cancer and other diseases in the area and the release of toxic wastes from the uranium enrichment plant into our local environment. Yet, so far, we have no concrete, incontrovertible evidence.
On February 26, 2002 a media conference was held in Portsmouth, Ohio in order to share the findings of a report completed by Radioactive Waste Management Associates on groundwater contamination at the Piketon facility. Unfortunately, this report also failed to make any indisputable connection between the plantís groundwater contaminants and diseases in the area.
The problem, it seems, is the information used as the basis for this report came from the Department of Energy. The inadequacy of such government-provided information stems from the facts that the production of weaponís grade uranium at the facility classifies a great deal of information for security reasons, that the DOE only began testing for certain contaminants after learning about their significance during the course of the plantís operation over the last half century, and that no concerted community, political, or media effort has ever demanded more complete data.
One would assume that, in lieu of off-site environmental impact studies by the DOE, the Environmental Protection Agency would gather such information. But it has not, at least not in any comprehensive manner. Apparently, the only way to get an accurate analysis of the plantís groundwater, soil, and airborne contaminants, their impact on the local environment, and their correlation to the health of the areaís inhabitants will be through an independent study. That, of course, would take money and the political and community will to get it done.
The federal government acknowledged its responsibility to nuclear industry workers who became ill from their exposure to contaminants in the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000. Unfortunately, only workers exposed to specific contaminants, not all nuclear-related contaminants, qualify for the EEOICPAís $150,000 compensation and lifetime health benefits. The low $150,000 compensation amount itself could be seen as a slap in the face to many of these disabled workers, especially when considering what that amount averages per year of lost work for the long-time disabled and when comparing the $150,000 to the $500,000 to $1.5 million or so earmarked for each of the families of the September 11th victims.
My Question Is: Could the Piketon site eventually be deemed another national sacrifice zone, an area so contaminated or so depleted of its resources that it has little or no future use?
Often, Appalachian communities are caught in the conflict between the short-term benefits of jobs in industries that in some way negatively impact the environment and the long-term consequences those industries have on their employees and on the regionís residents and natural surroundings.
While the jobs at the uranium enrichment plant added greatly to the economic health of the community, the facilityís detriment to the areaís physical health has yet to be determined. Without a comprehensive, independent study that connects a high incidence of certain diseases in the area to nuclear-industry contaminants, these disease rates could be attributed to a myriad of other factors, such as the socioeconomic status of the areaís residents, their heredity, other industrial pollutants, or other natural factors.
Only after determining the impact of each and every one of these factors can the local community take the appropriate corrective actions. Only with adequate information can a clear determination be made as to whether or not the short-term economic benefits of any future industrial development at the now inoperative Piketon site, such as the proposed spent uranium-processing facility or the proposed nuclear power plant, would outweigh any potential long-term negative impact on the health of the employees, the community, or the environment.
Right now, we are just operating in the dark.
Mike Bryan is the founder of the coalition/advocacy organization
Appalachia First. Send comments to email@example.com.
Originally published in the Portsmouth Daily Times on Friday March 8, 2002.