Tuesday, May 08, 2001

Fernald marks 50th anniversary

Ceremony points to cleanup effort

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CROSBY TOWNSHIP — The spring landscape is lush and green, revealing no hint of a dubious past. But surely its ghosts will ramble across the fertile fields today when the U.S. Department of Energy and its cleanup contractor, Fluor Fernald, commemorate the 50th anniversary of the former Fernald atomic site.

        They will recognize the people who built Fernald's production facilities and are leading its cleanup, and preview a Fernald documentary. But some darker topics surely will emerge.

  • What: Ceremony commemorating 50th anniversary of Fernald uranium-processing plant. The government will recognize people involved in the plant's production and cleanup missions.
  • Where: 7400 Willey Road, near Ohio 128, south of Ross.
  • When: 10 a.m. today.
Speaker: U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park.
  • Activities: Tours of plant, free lunch and viewing of documentary, First Link: A Story of Fernald.
        After all, Fernald's history recalls the Cold War, family disruptions and the silent winds of radiation.

        Remembering suits area residents, who have battled for decades to force a cleanup at the former uranium-processing plant that once produced materials for America's nuclear defense.

        “The people who worked there did a service for their country,” said Edwa Yocum, an area resident. “But if they had managed their wastes, we wouldn't have the problem that still exists today. Now, they're being held accountable.”

        The problem: radioactive waste left from the days when government regulations were much more lax. Although the government is cleaning up the site, neighbors worry that federal financing for the program will end before the job can be completed in seven to nine years.

        To compound the problem, some experts disagree over how effectively the site can be cleansed of radioactivity.

  1950: Fernald, a rural village in northern Hamilton County, is considered as one of three sites for a new U.S. uranium-processing plant to support the defense program.
  1951: Atomic Energy Commission breaks ground for the plant on 1,050 acres near the village.
  1952: Limited production begins. National Lead of Ohio runs the plant.
  1984: Neighbors form Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH) and begin to monitor the plant.
  1984: FRESH files class-action suit against the government.
  1985: National Lead leaves. Westinghouse named chief operator.
  1988: The U.S. Department of Energy admits in a report that contamination at the Fernald uranium-processing plant is a health threat.
  1989: Government settles out of court with residents, awarding $73 million.
  1989: Production ends at Fernald plant. Government starts to clean up the site.
  1992: A Fluor subsidiary, Fluor Daniel, starts managing the cleanup of the facility.
  2001: For the plant's 50th anniversary, cleanup contractor Fluor Fernald announces new forests and wetlands developing on the property.
        Ironically, the history of the Fernald plant is rooted in a nation's sense of self-preservation. When construction began at the 1,050-acre site in 1951, Fernald was a rural village in northern Hamilton County, near the Butler County line. The nuclear industry was in its infancy. Korea was the world's hot spot and the sworn enemies were the communists who had emerged in China and other countries.

        Seeking to build a new uranium-weapons plant, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, predecessor of the Department of Energy (DOE), considered three sites: Terre Haute, Ind., Hamilton, Ohio, and Cincinnati. The agency liked the rural nature of the Cincinnati site, at Fer nald, about 17 miles northwest of downtown — within driving distance for the region's skilled machinists. The site also offered a sufficient water supply and low land costs.

        Using eminent domain, the AEC took property from rural families, who had only 30 days to leave.

        “Mom and dad strove and worked hard from the Depression to get what we had,” said Marion Fuchs of Crosby Township. “We cried like babies when they took our land.”

        So secret was the plant that the AEC called it the Feed Materials Production Center. In May 1951, the agency broke ground. Within a year the AEC and its contractor, National Lead of Ohio, started production.

        More farmhouses gave way to laboratories and manufacturing plants that resembled big grain elevators. The complex operated quietly — secretively — through the 1950s and 1960s, making high-purity uranium metal for nuclear weapons. Up to 3,000 people worked there during those years.

        By the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the Feed Materials Production Plant had become a symbol of the East-West struggle.

        Employees knew little if anything about what workers did in other parts of the site. But they did know they were doing patriotic work. Posters at the plant read: “Don't talk out of turn! You are a PRODUCTION SOLDIER ... America's First Line of Defense is HERE.

        “A lot of military people came to Fernald to work after World War II,” said Homer Bruce, 72, of Bevis, who worked there for about 43 years. “They were dedicated. You felt like you were a part of a team. The plant was extremely important to U.S. security then.

Red scare abates
               “The Cold War was a scary time. We knew we were doing something important. We had a real camaraderie at Fernald and I miss the place. Turnover was among the lowest of any employer in Hamilton and Butler counties.”

        But by the late 1970s, as the nation's Red hysteria gave way to a focused American determination, local people started asking an important question: What was happening behind the gates at Fernald?

        In 1984, the DOE reported that failure of the site's dust collector caused the release of almost 300 pounds of enriched uranium oxide. Some wells near the plant were contaminated with uranium.

        “Years of uranium metal production and on-site storage of waste and nuclear material left the soil, ground water and buildings contaminated,” said Steve McCraken, site director for the U.S. Department of Energy. “Local residents, regulators and workers demanded an equal voice in cleanup decisions that affected the environment and their communities. Today, all parties work together on one clear goal: to safely complete the cleanup and restoration of the Fernald site.”

        The project is expected to cost more than $5 billion.

        In time, the struggle moved from East versus West to local people versus the government. In 1984, neighbors formed Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH), to monitor the plant. Eventually, the group filed a class action lawsuit for emotional distress and damaged property values. The government settled in 1989.

        Neighbors won $73 million, which includes medical testing. Fernald workers also sued and reached a $15 million settlement that contains a pledge of lifetime medical monitoring, but does not include paying for treatment.

        Ms. Yocum, a FRESH member for 16 years, said the community has made it clear that the cleanup must be finished.

        “We continue to have the health impact,” she said. “If Congress cuts funding for the cleanup, we're in trouble. That's our main concern. We hope in the next 50 years that we can return the area to at least something on the order of what it used to be. I intend to be here until the job is finished. One problem is that it's hard to prove that residents were made sick by the plant.”

        Studies show that people who live near the plant have a higher risk for certain cancers. Lisa Crawford, FRESH's leader, said her family's well was contaminated by toxic emissions.

        “In 1979, we rented an old farmhouse across from the site,” she said. “In 1985, we found the well was contaminated. They (plant operators) didn't tell us and they knew about it. You can't do that to people. So we sued them. . . We're seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”

Fluor confident

        The plant closed in 1989. Cleanup began in 1991. Fluor's contract requires the firm to finish the job by the end of 2010, but spokeswoman Christy McMurry said the company still hopes to finish by 2008, the original completion date.

        She said so much progress has been made already that the company is calling the anniversary “Fernald at 50: From Weapons to Wetlands.”

        Wetlands are a stark contrast to the guarded past — even the more recent past. Dr. David B. Fankhauser, a biologist and geneticist at Clermont College in Batavia and former consultant for FRESH, said the site's radioactive past will echo to eternity.

        “There's no way any current politicians will clean it up,” he said. “The ground water will continue to show elevated levels of radioactivity. They're taking away the worst of it now. But how effective they will be depends on the speed with which they can remove the materials.”

        He said Fernald was one of the nation's largest waste dumps for radioactive materials. Much of it — in tens of thousands of barrels — was buried years ago.

        Throughout the Cold War, workers in weapons plants absorbed fluorine, uranium, asbestos and other toxic materials — often unknowingly. Now, many suffer from leukemia or other cancers.

        Yet thousands of people worked at Fernald for years without fear of contamination. “We had nuclear physicists and hygienists and experts working there,” said Mr. Bruce, who worked in personnel, printing and other offices. “I thought, would they be here if they had tremendous fears?”

        But area residents continue to worry — about ground water contamination, genetic damage and cancers. New studies show that health concerns for long-time neighbors include lung, kidney, bladder, prostate and skin cancers.

        Today, work continues to clean up contaminated areas and return the land to its natural state as much as possible.

        “It is the final chapter in this area's Cold War legacy,” Fluor Fernald said in a prepared statement for the anniversary.

        Yet Dr. Fankhauser is skeptical about using finality in the same sentence with Fernald.

        “I will not believe it until I see no elevated radiation levels off-site,” he said. “I'm afraid that this is the legacy: They have not removed all the waste. It (radiation) will continue, and will leach into the aquifer.”


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