By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
This isn't your DAD's Fernald. The former uranium processing plant 18 miles north of Cincinnati supplied raw materials for the nation's nuclear weapons program from 1953 until 1989. It left in its wake a 40-year legacy of secrets, deceit and radioactive contamination that long frustrated neighbors.
"It used to be the 'DAD' syndrome: they decide, they announce and they defend," said Lisa Crawford, president of the Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH), which has been battling with the government over the site for 19 years.
Even the initial cleanup effort got off to a rocky start as managers tried to cut the public out of the decision-making, misled people about the extent of the pollution and misspent millions in a scandal that threatened to cost construction giant Fluor Daniel its contract to clean up the Superfund site.
Today, as the $4.4 billion project winds toward transformation into park and wetlands in 2006, Fluor remains on the job and some of Fernald's harshest critics say there has been a sea change - in the contractor and the Department of Energy, which is overseeing the effort.
Both are now committed to involving the public in decisions and are open about operations there. On Tuesday, the last of thousands of public tours will be given as Fernald cleanup moves into its most intricate phases.
"We went from it being a totally classified, secret place to being a totally open place," Crawford said. "It's like night and day."
The Fernald area of Crosby Township has long been linked to the nation's defense.
In the late 1700s, land in the Fernald area was granted by the U.S. government to veterans of the Revolutionary War. Years later, Fernald Station - as the crossroads community was first called - was a blockhouse built as a refuge for settlers from Indian attack.
Then, in 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission bought 1,200 acres near Fernald for its Feed Materials Production Center - called that because its mission was to convert uranium ore into high-purity uranium, or feed material, for other nuclear plants that used it in reactors to make plutonium.
The refinery did not produce or handle explosive devices, nuclear weapons or highly radioactive materials.
But the site shed 10 pounds of metallic waste for every pound of high-quality uranium produced. It also was used to store an additional 9,700 tons of low-level radioactive waste - some with the consistency of a mucky sludge, some more like powder - in three concrete silos on the western edge of the property.
When the Department of Energy selected Fluor from a field of three companies for the massive cleanup in 1992, it marked the first time the U.S. government hired anyone to clean up one of its nuclear plants.
"There has been a change in our corporate culture since 1992, you bet," said Jamie Jameson, president of Fluor Fernald Inc., the subsidiary of Fluor Daniel established to handle the Fernald project. "We sit down with members of the public almost weekly. They tell us when we're not going down the right path, and that's healthy.
"We try to lay it all out on the table because they have to understand what we're dealing with out here."
That change was far from voluntary.
A series of lawsuits and government investigations - one of which was sparked by an Enquirer series - led to the conclusion that managers failed to notify workers of dangerous working conditions; were lax in safety standards and allowed radioactive dust to permeate many buildings; lied about the amount of radioactive discharges into the air and water; and hid safety concerns from the public.
In June 1986, the Sierra Club reported that radioactive pollution was leaching from waste pits into the Great Miami Aquifer. Fernald officials denied the report. So, too, did the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
Four days later, the OEPA confirmed the waste was escaping.
About the same time, a Congressional investigation uncovered documents showing Fernald officials knew in 1960 that waste pits were contaminating ground water.
Fernald officials also told the public that Paddy's Run creek was not polluted. It was. The government told neighbors uranium dust was too heavy to float beyond plant boundaries. It did.
A class-action lawsuit brought by former Fernald workers ended in 1994 with a $15 million settlement that brought stacks of long-secret documents to light. Those documents revealed, among other things, that Fernald managers were aware since the 1960s that workers were exposed to potentially dangerous levels of radioactive uranium dust, along with other hazards, and took no action.
A success story
Neighbors also won on their day in court. A class-action lawsuit, brought on behalf of FRESH but representing 14,000 residents, ended with a $73 million settlement and lifetime medical monitoring.
Cincinnati attorney Stan Chesley handled both suits.
"But for those lawsuits, the truth would have never got out," Chesley said. "Up until that time, if you even talked about the plant you were subject to prison or being called a communist."
Although nearly 60 percent of the site has been cleaned - about 617 acres - some of the most difficult work still remains. All but 200 acres will be returned to the public as undeveloped park and wetlands.
Bill Muno, director of the U.S. EPA's Superfund division for the Midwest, said the project has evolved into a success story.
"It's a pretty large project that is both technically complicated and has a lot of regulatory complexities," Muno said. "That has required a good working relationship between the agencies and a lot of public participation.
"I think it shows how public involvement can drive a project."
Crawford, of FRESH, agrees with that but says it took a long time to get those agencies to acknowledge the public's right to participate.
She also says her family drank water from the aquifer for more than four years before the government admitted to polluting it.
"I feel like I'm 100 some days, instead of 46," Crawford said. "We were young when it started. It's a good success story, but there's always that nagging worry in the back of my mind."
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