Saturday, May 26, 2001

Fernald legacy


History teaches us perspective

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        While working on the recent story, “Fernald Turns 50,” I felt an uneasiness that comes with not trusting your government.

        The plant, now being cleaned up by Fluor Fernald, opened in Crosby Township in Hamilton County in 1951 to make uranium metal products for nuclear weapons during the arms race.

        I admit I didn't follow the Fernald story over the years. Fernald isn't on my beat and, like most people, I didn't have much time to read about it.

        Of more interest was a graphic that once showed the prevailing winds around Fernald. I hoped they weren't heading toward Hamilton, my hometown, which lies only about 12 miles north of the former uranium processing plant.

        In researching the story, I was surprised to learn that the government initially considered Hamilton (and Terre Haute, Ind.) as possible sites. Hamilton could provide machinists then.

        During my baby boom childhood, I never knew that Fernald workers protected my family, our city and nation. My small vocabularly included fallout shelter and radiation, but never Fernald.

        In fact, many people who worked there didn't understand the extent of the plant's mission.

        When it closed in 1989, it was already under scrutiny for handling radioactive waste. Area residents and plant workers filed — and won — suits against the government. Yet the cleanup continued.

        Perhaps that's the most important point to the Fernald story.

        U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Terrace Park, whose 2nd District includes the site, said he has devoted much time and energy to the project over eight years.

        “When I was first elected, the cleanup was on a 25-year schedule and virtually no cleanup was occurring,” he said. “We changed it to 10-12 years and have saved the taxpayers a lot — $3 billion to $4 billion — and really helped clean up the contaminants. It's actually the Department of Energy's model cleanup now.”

        Once, the plant was another kind of model — of uranium production. The soil, ground water and buildings became contaminated. Fernald operated with almost no oversight and few people knew or cared what was happening behind closed gates.

        But we must place Fernald in its proper context. As it was being built, Americans were serving in Korea and the Cold War had become red hot. China had fallen to the Communists.

        “It's only been 10 years since the Cold War ended; but even in that short period of time, it has become easy to forget the fear and how tense and troubled those times in the early 1950s were,” Mr. Portman said.

        Lisa Crawford, founder of Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH), told me that radioactive wastes from the plant poisoned her family's drinking well.

        “They knew it,” she said of plant operators. “They knew it and told us nothing.”

        Hearing such stories made Fernald too real to me. It was no longer just gray and black type and headlines to be ignored.

        “Fernald includes a lot of interesting history about the Cold War and some difficult consequences and lessons learned,” Mr. Portman said. “The current situation teaches us much about how government regulators and communities can collaborate; lessons can be learned here as well. For me, the future gives great hope.”

       Randy McNutt's column appears Saturday. Contact him at 755-4158 or at The Cincinnati Enquirer, 7700 Service Center Drive., West Chester, OH 45069. E-mail: Rmcnutt@enquirer.com.

       



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