The Columbus Dispatch

Piketon Focusing On New Jobs

Pollution, health risks of former plant don't seem to be a concern in job-strapped area

Sunday, January 18, 2004

By Geoff Dutton

The announcement last week that the government plans to reactivate a uranium-enrichment plant in Piketon gave a jolt of optimism to a down-on-its-luck southern Ohio town, stirring memories of jobs, prosperity and patriotic duty.

The notion of jobs creation brought cheers at news conferences, but no one mentioned the Cold War-era facility's history of poisoning the environment, and the men and women who worked there.

The Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which made fuel for nuclear bombs and power plants for nearly half a century, stopped working with uranium in May 2001 after a federal investigation and congressional hearing.

The probe found that for decades the government and its contractors had mishandled hazardous materials, deceived employees about workplace dangers and contaminated the groundwater near the 3,708-acre site.

The worst of the problems had occurred years earlier, when fear of the Soviets spurred a national push to enrich uranium at a time when knowledge about the environmental and health consequences was limited.

But pollution problems continued into the 1990s. Under a court order, the Department of Energy began a cleanup effort in 1988 that is expected to take 30 years and cost $1.3 billion.

In August 2001, the federal government started paying former workers as much as $150,000 for cancer and other illnesses that, under a new law, were presumed to have been caused by workplace exposures. The payouts to employees at Piketon and a sister facility in Paducah, Ky., were projected to total $1.9 billion.

Last week, Ohio officials announced that the plant would resume uranium enrichment using a different process. The state had won a bidding war with Kentucky by offering $125 million in tax breaks, loans and other incentives.

"Any jobs is good news, but when you get jobs at a plant where people are already dying of cancer, it's pretty sad,'' said Vina Colley, 56, a former employee turned local activist. She blames the plant for her chronic bronchitis, thyroid problems and four tumors.

Many residents in the economically depressed area 65 miles south of Columbus disagreed, including other former workers battling cancer and other serious illnesses.

The horror stories, their horror stories, are tales from another era, they say, and aren't likely to be repeated.

"There's a lot of people that are afraid of it,'' said Preston Strutt, 82, of Piketon, who retired in 1985 and has colon cancer. "They're afraid of cancer, that's what they're afraid of.''

The government paid him $150,000 for his illnesses, but he's optimistic about the new facility.

"I'm certainly pleased, if they get it in there. I'd like to see people get work.''

During much of its history, the plant employed more than 3,000 people.

Originally focused on making highly enriched uranium for bombs, production was shifted to fuel for nuclear power plants in the 1970s.

More than two years ago, the plant was put on "cold standby.'' About 1,400 workers remain on maintenance and cleanup duty.

The new, $1 billion American Centrifuge Plant is expected to create 500 jobs.

The centrifuge process will move uranium gas through a series of 50-foot long, fast-spinning tubes that separate the molecules. The lesser molecules are sifted out, enriching the uranium enough to sustain atom-splitting fission in a nuclear reactor.

Uranium for a nuclear power plant is enriched to about 4 percent, compared with more than 90 percent required for bombs.

The uranium fuel will be sold to power plants around the world.

A $50 million centrifuge test facility will be built in Piketon by 2005. If successful, full-scale operations could begin by 2010.

"There's really not a major safety risk in the enrichment process,'' said Elizabeth Stuckle, spokeswoman for USEC, the plant manager.

"Our worst-case accident scenario is really pretty minor even compared to what a major chemical company or nuclear power plant would be. It's environmentally a clean technology.''

Two Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors will be assigned to the site full time. Commission officials also will make regular announced and unannounced visits, said Yawar Faraz, the commission's project manager of the gas centrifuge operation.

Radioactivity at a commercial plant is "far lower'' than at a weapons plant, commission spokesman Ken Clark added. "It's physically impossible for you to have a nuclear explosion.''

But even by the time the new plant goes online, officials will still be cleaning up contamination for years from a dirtier and more dangerous era.

In the mid-1980s, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency found buried drums of hazardous waste, an incinerator operating without a permit, and improperly trained employees.

When the state confronted the Department of Energy, federal officials said they weren't subject to state pollution regulations. The Ohio EPA sued, and a federal judge signed a consent decree in 1988 giving the state oversight for a long list of cleanup requirements.

"That order's still in effect,'' said Maria Galanti, the EPA's project site coordinator since 1991.

The Department of Energy is in charge of cleaning up the property, including five locations, ranging in size from 12 to 25 acres each, where pollutants have seeped into groundwater.

"We'll never get rid of it all -- ever,'' Galanti said. "Our goal is to have it contained on site.''

So far, it has been contained. But tests are under way along the southern edge of the property where pollution is feared to be seeping off site. The location is within sight of area homes.

In 1995, a small diesel spill in Big Run Creek killed 30 fish. The state fined the plant $10.80. In 1999, a waterline broke, spilling chemically contaminated water into Little Beaver Creek, killing more than 3,000 fish along a 2-mile stretch. That time, the plant was fined $876.14.

Fish kills aside, a spokesman for USEC, which has managed the plant since 1993, noted that environmental problems occurred when the federal government or other contractors ran the operation.

Geoff Dutton
The Columbus Dispatch
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