The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky

6 more dump sites reported to DOE

State to search for waste piles

By Joe Walker

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Al Puckett remembers the 1960s when Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant supervisors ordered a worker to bury uranium waste in a gravel pit west of the plant on Saturdays.

“I don’t know what was in it, but it came out of the process buildings, so it couldn’t have been good,” Puckett said of the plant’s massive uranium enrichment structures.

Puckett, a union steward then, told the employee to file a grievance if his bosses repeated the orders. They had sworn they would deny everything if he got caught secretly dumping, Puckett recalled.

Now 80, Puckett suffers from illnesses he thinks are related to breathing an accidental release of uranium hexafluoride gas during his 12 years at the plant.

The gravel pit, in the West Kentucky Wildlife Management Area, is one of six old dump sites — both above and below ground — newly reported to the Kentucky Division of Waste Management. Former plant landfill manager Gary VanderBoegh presented the information based on help from “three or four” plant neighbors and former employees.

“This is not trying to implicate the new cleanup contractor, past contractors or anyone else,” VanderBoegh said. “All I’m saying is this stuff has been dumped and not cleaned up.”

VanderBoegh has an ongoing labor claim against the Department of Energy that he wasn’t rehired last spring because he had too much knowledge of plant contamination problems. DOE and its contractors deny that.

State regulators will start looking for the six sites next week based on maps presented by VanderBoegh. Waste piles are typically easier to spot than burial areas, said Tony Hatton, assistant director of the Kentucky Division of Waste Management.

“At this point we just don’t know what’s there until we get out there and look,” he said.

VanderBoegh forwarded the information to members of the Kentucky congressional delegation. Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield wrote Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman expressing concerns over six mounds of radioactive dirt newly found in the management area.

“We need to know the extent of the contamination at the site,” Whitfield said. “It is very concerning to me that the waste was deposited nearly 30 years ago, yet no efforts were taken during that time to clearly identify the contamination or warn people about potential health hazards.”

Twenty-two more overgrown, contaminated dirt piles have now been found on the east and west sides of the plant. Hatton said the mounds apparently came from the dredging of Little and Big Bayou creeks 20 to 30 years ago.

DOE spokeswoman Meagan Barnett said initial surveys of the 22 piles showed radiation levels much lower than the first six. Sections of piles found earlier contained radiation and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — both common plant contaminants — at levels not posing immediate risks to humans or the environment, Hatton said.

Hatton said DOE is preparing a plan to sample and analyze the dirt mounds, determine what contaminants are there and plan a course of action. The plan is expected within 30 to 45 days.

Although the state has stopped searching for earthen waste, DOE will continue surveying, Barnett said. “It will take several months, using sophisticated technology that is sensitive to low levels of radiation.”

Earlier this year, the state identified 47 old rubble piles — 34 in the West Kentucky management area and 13 in the Ballard County Wildlife Management Area — containing concrete, metal beams and other construction-demolition materials from the plant. Eight of the piles had been identified in 1997 amid plant cleanup work, while the rest were newly discovered, according to state documents obtained by VanderBoegh and confirmed by Hatton.

Several piles scanned for more than natural levels of radiation have been or will be removed and taken inside the plant fenced area, Hatton said. VanderBoegh said some of the levels were high enough that the debris wouldn’t been allowed to go into the landfill off Ogden Landing Road that he once managed.

Initial field surveys showed low levels of radiation in the rubble piles, but they are still being evaluated, Barnett said.

Hatton said he isn’t surprised that more and more dump sites are being found in the sprawling, 6,463-acre West Kentucky wildlife area, which surrounds the 54-year-old, 750-acre uranium enrichment factory.

“We may continue to find other things as well,” he said. “But it certainly appears that most if not all of it is historical.”

VanderBoegh said he compiled the maps over the past several months after being contacted by people knowledgeable of the old dump sites. Some of them told him that DOE and Department of Justice officials were informed about the sites in 1999 when an investigation began based on a whistle-blower lawsuit, VanderBoegh said. “I can’t confirm whether that’s true or not.”

The case, alleging former plant contractors covered up environmental problems to protect huge award fees, continues in federal court and may go to trial next year. The contractors deny the allegations.

VanderBoegh’s maps also depict a waste pile near Dyke Road southeast of the plant, as well two piles at or near the northwestern plant boundary. Two other areas depict burial sites.

VanderBoegh said uranium reportedly was buried in an area at or near the southwestern corner of the plant fence. Burial was done to keep the uranium from catching fire on contact with the air, he said.

Drums of waste reportedly are buried in the river bottom in the West Kentucky Wildlife Management Area north of the plant, VanderBoegh said.