Friday, July 18, 2003

Fernald released tainted rainwater

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

CROSBY TWP. - More than 2.9 million gallons of rainwater tainted with uranium was discharged from the Fernald nuclear cleanup site directly into the Great Miami River earlier this month.

The water carried levels of uranium nearly three times the amount allowable for safe drinking water.

The discharge - which continued for 50 consecutive hours, July 10-12 - is permitted by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. It was caused by hard rainfall and portions of the plant's water treatment facility being down for maintenance.

Officials with Fluor Daniel, the company managing the $4.4 billion cleanup at the former uranium enrichment plant, say the discharge was necessary to prevent retainage basins on the site from overflowing into Paddy's Run, a small stream that bleeds directly into the Great Miami Aquifer. The aquifer was contaminated while the plant was operating from 1953 through 1989, and purifying the underground water is one of the largest aspects of the cleanup.

Tom Schneider, Fernald supervisor for the OEPA, said the state would prefer that no contaminated water be discharged into the river. But, he said, that's not realistic.

"It's not the preferred situation, but it's one that's going to happen," Schneider said of the discharges. "Engineering systems have limitations, and when you exceed them you have to have a reasonable alternative. This is the best alternative."

The basins are designed to handle rainfall from all but storms so severe they only tend to happen once every decade. Despite that, the OEPA allows the site up to 10 discharges per year that don't count in the monthly averaging of the uranium content in the plant's water discharges - which are supposed to meet drinking-water standards of 30 parts per billion.

Bill Hertel, assistant manager of the aquifer restoration and wastewater project at Fernald for Fluor Daniel, said water in the basins has a uranium content of about 325 parts per billion. But that water was mixed with cleaned water as it was discharged into the river. "We discharge five to six million gallons per day into the river," Hertel said.

That's not reassuring to environmentalists or neighbors of the plant.

Glen Brand, Midwest representative for the Sierra Club, said no uranium should be pumped into the river. He called for a study of the effect discharged uranium is having on fish and other wildlife.

"Direct dumping of uranium-tainted water into the Great Miami River is not acceptable, and the cleanup treatment system needs to be sufficient to properly treat all of the water," Brand said. "The system is not adequate and we can certainly do better. We should have capacity to hold water for all but the most freakish weather events."

Last year Fernald had six discharges, totaling 7.3 million gallons, which were exempt from their monthly uranium averages. They also had four days of exemptions when the water treatment plant was down for maintenance. Those discharges, also exempt from monthly averages, totaled more than 23 million gallons of tainted water.

Lisa Crawford, head of the Fernald Citizen's Advisory Board, said the plant's neighbors were notified that the discharges would happen. They are a part of life around the plant.

"It's a big deal, and nobody likes it," Crawford said. "But at the same time, we've had a ton of rain and there's nowhere else to take it. Anytime you get into a situation like this, you wonder are they doing the right thing, and are they only doing what they've reported to us.

"We don't have a 100 percent guarantee on that. We'd all like to see nothing go into the river, but that's not going to happen."

Fernald produced raw materials for atomic bombs for more than three decades. The plant produced high-grade uranium, which was then shipped to plants that manufactured bombs. Cleanup of the 1,050-acre site started in 1992 and will cost taxpayers at least $4.4 billion before it's complete in 2006.

A series of lawsuits resulted in more than $90 million in payments by the government and lifetime health monitoring for people who live around the plant. The lawsuits and a newspaper investigation led to the conclusion that managers failed to notify workers of dangerous conditions and that the government failed to notify residents of polluted drinking water and radon gas into the air.


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