History repeats itself

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Four decades have passed since the Fernald uranium processing plant transformed 1,050 acres of sleepy farmland 18 miles northwest of Cincinnati into a vital part of America's nuclear weapons complex.

From construction that began in 1951 to the end of operations in 1989, more than 7,000 workers at Fernald produced the raw material for the atomic bombs that helped win the Cold War. Yet the Fernald legacy also has been tarred by four decades of secrecy, denial, false assurance.

As an Enquirer investigation shows, this web of deceit continues today - even after a history laced with countless government reports, audits and hearings; two historic class-action lawsuit settlements on behalf of neighbors and workers; and a litany of allegations and protests from whistleblowers and community activists.

Throughout its history, the Department of Energy has changed management at the Fernald site three times. And since closing the plant in 1989, the government has poured up to $260 million a year into cleaning up the radioactive and hazardous pollution left behind. Questions about how well that money has been spent have plagued Fernald for years.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Fernald's checkered past is that, compared with other nuclear weapons sites, Fernald is considered by many to be a success story.

Fernald is one of the few nuclear sites that has completed the years of planning involved in deciding how to clean up the mess. In fact, some of the real cleanup work has begun.

Longtime critics of Fernald have hailed the level of public involvement in recent years. And after bad experiences with previous contractors, the agreement between the Energy Department and FERMCO was envisioned as a national model for cleaning up other Superfund sites.

''Things were pretty bad 12 years ago, but now we have a seat at the table,'' said Lisa Crawford, president of Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH). Mrs. Crawford has fought for 12 years to close and clean up Fernald.

''The biggest deception was that nobody really knew what this plant really did,'' Mrs. Crawford said. ''People just flat-out were not told. It was damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. We're going to build bombs no matter what. We have taught them that it doesn't pay to lie anymore. People have the right to know what is in their water and what is in their air.''

A review of more than 1,000 news articles about Fernald reveals that a pattern of denial started from the day construction began in 1951 - just two years after the Soviet Union had detonated its first atomic bomb.

Fernald was part of the $300 billion Cold War effort to build up America's nuclear arsenal. For most of its history, the plant's official name was the Feed Materials Processing Center. It is known as the Fernald plant because it is near the tiny village of Fernald in Crosby Township.

It was in 1951, while announcing the location of the new atomic plant, that the first deception was uttered.

James F. Chandler, the first manager at Fernald, vowed to the press and public that the new plant ''would not create environmental toxic or radiological hazards.''

Despite an officially glistening safety record, former workers recall the acid fumes, the layers of radioactive dust and the smoke of frequent uranium ''chip fires.'' They remember working for years with no more protection than hard hats and gloves in areas where cleanup workers today won't go without full radiation suits, masks and air lines.

A class-action lawsuit brought by former Fernald workers ended in August 1994 with a $15 million settlement plus lifelong medical monitoring for workers. The case - the first legal victory by any group of atomic workers - brought reams of long-hidden documents to light. In 1955, Angelo Gallina was severely burned by uranium-laced acid when he tried to clear a clogged chute with a sledgehammer. Rather than being hospitalized he was treated for two weeks at the plant's first aid station. During his recovery, he was escorted to the plant to shuffle paper so that the management would not have to report a lost work time accident.

Other documents showed that Fernald managers were aware since the 1960s that workers were exposed to potentially dangerous levels of radioactive uranium dust and other hazards, yet delayed taking corrective action.

In 1994, a House subcommittee on oversight and investigations released documents indicating that workers were given virtually no reliable information about the health risks they faced. Among the documents, internal reports that listed uranium concentrations at Fernald hundreds of times - sometimes as high as 650 times - above government limits.

Then between 1983 and 1985, the trial confirmed that Fernald managers implemented a ''fudge factor'' for measuring the buildup of radioactive-dust levels on workers' dosage badges. Designed to correct misleading readings, the correction was so large that some workers actually had negative radiation readings.

Throughout the litigation, National Lead of Ohio (NLO), which operated the plant from 1953 to 1985, maintained that workers were not exposed to extraordinary health hazards at the plant and that it followed the best available safety standards of the time.

It was 1984 when the government officially informed Mrs. Crawford that radioactive pollution had contaminated her family's drinking well. Even worse were the revelations that the Energy Department and Fernald managers had found the contamination in 1981 and 1982, but said nothing.

''We drank from that well for four years. I look at my son every single day and pray he's going to be OK,'' Mrs. Crawford said.

For years, the Energy Department and Fernald managers had shrugged off allegations that pollution from Fernald threatened the surrounding environment and the health of nearby residents. As the years passed, data to the contrary emerged.

In June 1986, the Sierra Club reported that radioactive pollution was leaking from waste pits into the ground water below Fernald, threatening the Great Miami Aquifer. At the time, Fernald officials denied the report; so did the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Four days later, the Ohio EPA confirmed that waste was escaping the pits.

But there was more. By September 1986, a Congressional investigation uncovered documents showing that Fernald officials knew in 1960 that waste pits were contaminating ground water. Then in March 1987, more documents showed that the U.S. Geological Survey had warned the Atomic Energy Commission of the ground water pollution risk in 1951.

Fernald officials also said in public that Paddy's Run Creek, which runs near the plant, was not polluted. It was. The government tried to tell neighbors that uranium dust was too heavy to float beyond plant boundaries. But it did.

Then, when it was clear that radioactive dust had in fact escaped from smokestacks and scrubbers into the atmosphere, the Energy Department underrepresented the airborne emissions statistics.

Until 1993, Fernald and the Energy Department estimated that 299,300 pounds of airborne uranium emissions were released between 1951 and 1988. Another 169,974 pounds were released into the water.

In 1993, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at the original notebooks kept at Fernald rather than summary reports, the airborne emission estimate tripled to 1 million pounds. The water pollution emissions were raised to 217,800 pounds.

The discovery of contaminated off-site drinking wells ultimately led to a class-action lawsuit brought by neighbors of Fernald. They won a $78 million settlement, based primarily on emotional distress and loss of property values.

And despite Energy Department claims that the level of environmental contamination poses no serious health risks, the Girl Scouts closed Camp Ross Trails near Fernald in 1988. The Energy Department supplied families near Fernald with bottled water. And the federal government agreed to pay $4.2 million to extend county water lines to 110 residences south of the Fernald plant.

Documents have shown that allegations of body snatching at Fernald - long dismissed as a rumor fostered by paranoid anti-nuclear activists - were substantially true.

In 1986, the widow of Fernald worker Larry Hicks sued NLO, charging that the company conspired to take organs from her dead husband without her permission. His organs were, in fact, sent to a government lab for radiation analysis.

But the U.S. District Court ruled that coroner Frank Cleveland, was within his authority to send samples from Hicks' body to the lab without obtaining permission.

Again, there was more. In June 1995, The Enquirer learned that researchers at Fernald secretly set up a pathology and forensic laboratory to conduct radiation experiments using the body parts of deceased employees and 11 private citizens during the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1986, the Energy Department and the EPA agreed to put Fernald on the national Superfund list of waste sites requiring priority action. A remediation study that would inventory the pollution problems and outline the cleanup strategy was to be finished in three years.

Instead, the planners drew fire from Congress for spending more than $100 million over six years and still not reaching any conclusions on future land use, cleanup methods, disposal sites or the level of environmental protection needed.

By 1993, the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations met to review ''serious problems'' at Fernald, including staff shortages, lack of training and undisciplined operations that have impaired safety and cleanup efforts at the plant.

There were allegations of massive travel budgets, purchasing of unneeded equipment and other wasteful spending. FERMCO nearly lost its contract over the allegations.

In 1994, an Energy Department Inspector General's report blasted Fernald contractor FERMCO for spending $642,000 on unnecessary furniture, storage and damage. Earlier in 1994, a General Accounting Office report blamed previous contractor Westinghouse for losing equipment worth $2.3 million.

The most controversial piece of evidence was an internal memorandum in which FERMCO workers were instructed not to talk to government inspectors.

''Do not point out any possible - potential problem areas,'' the memo reads. ''Do not indicate that you have been or are aware of any alleged violations.''

FERMCO said the document has been misinterpreted. It contained language drawn up by lawyers to protect the company legally - out of concern that some workers might speak to regulators without having accurate information.

Despite two lawsuits and a forest of paper devoted to studies, the actual health risks to those who worked at Fernald or lived nearby remain the single largest unanswered question about the plant.

An oft-delayed dose-reconstruction study that would estimate how much radiation exposure individuals may have received still has not been released. No comprehensive epidemiological study to measure cancer rates of workers or neighbors has ever been conducted.

Fernald and government officials have maintained that there is no evidence that the cancer rate among Fernald workers is higher than in the community in general.

So far, Joseph Carvitti, who died in 1981, and Herb Kelly, who died in 1994, have been the only Fernald workers whose families have ever won worker's compensation claims for allegedly radiation-caused illnesses.

Although the doors of secrecy are beginning to open at Fernald, Mrs. Crawford said the long history of deception at the plant makes it hard to trust the stream of information coming out now.

''I think there still are questions,'' Mrs. Crawford said. ''And I think there always will be.''


1951: The Atomic Energy Commission selected Fernald, Ohio (population 30) from among 63 sites nationwide as the site for a uranium processing plant, a key component of America's nuclear weapons complex. From 1952 to 1989, workers at Fernald transformed raw ores into round uranium ''derbies'' that were shipped to other sites for further refinement.

1953: Full-scale production begins.

1956: During peak production, the Fernald plant employed 2,891 people. Through the years, more than 7,000 people work there.

1962: As production slows, layoffs begin. Within a few years employment is cut in half. 1974: Residents living near Fernald speak out for the first time about potential health hazards.

1984: Fernald's manager, National Lead of Ohio (NLO), admits that radioactive dust has been emitted. Government officials also confirm that off-site drinking wells have been contaminated. The citizen watchdog group Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health is formed.

1985: Fernald residents file suit against NLO for emotional distress and damaged property values. Westinghouse replaces NLO as plant manager.

1989: Uranium production at Fernald stops and the plant joins a national list of Superfund cleanup sites. Residents win a $78 million settlement.

1990: Fernald workers file a class action lawsuit for emotional distress over possible health hazards. They won a $15 million settlement plus life-long medical monitoring in August 1994. 1992: Energy Department selects FERMCO, a company formed by Irvine, Calif.-based Fluor Daniel, as new manager. The contract is hailed as a model for cleaning up other nuclear weapons sites.

1993: A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that radioactive air emissions from Fernald were three times higher than previous estimates.

1994: FERMCO is criticized by federal officials for expenses.

1995: Nuclear medicine researchers say radium stockpiled at Fernald is the world's largest stockpile and is vital to cancer research. They urge the Energy Department to delay ''vitrification'' - sealing the radium into glass-like beads.

1996: On Feb. 5, EPA officials announced it has completed plans for treating contaminated ground water and soil. The total estimated cost of the scaled-back cleanup project - estimated at $4.8 billion in 1995 - is now $2 billion. Officials predict the site will be safe for industrial and other uses, including parkland.

Published Feb. 11, 1996.