FERMCO test plan called unsafe

Subcontractor faults waste-removal project

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The company cleaning up Fernald is ignoring a subcontractor's warnings that plans to cut a hole in top of a waste silo are dangerously flawed and could cause the structure to collapse.

R.E. Schweitzer Construction Co., the Cincinnati subcontractor that installed cables and bolts to be used in the project, said the apparatus is inadequate for the job. Schweitzer refused to bid on the actual removal job, saying it was too dangerous.

Officials of Fernald Environmental Restoration Co. (FERMCO), the company hired to clean up the former uranium-processing plant, said that despite Schweitzer's warnings, they plan to proceed with the project. Although conceding the silo dome may be thinner and more corroded than previously thought, and that the bolts were not used exactly as designed by the manufacturer, ''We think the project is safe,'' said FERMCO spokesman Rick Maslin.

The silo being used for the test sits adjacent to two identical structures that are filled with 20 million pounds of radioactive sludge left over from Fernald's production days. The test silo (called Silo 4) is supposedly empty and never was used for waste storage, although that too has been called into question by workers at the site.

The removal of the top portion of the silo's dome is being planned so FERMCO can insert a pump into the opening to test a process that, if successful, will later be used to remove the radioactive waste from the other silos. FERMCO's plans are to then pump the waste into a vitrification plant that would encapsulate it in a glass-like substance to be shipped for burial in Nevada.

The vitrification process is part of a $2.2 billion contract FERMCO has with the U.S. Department of Energy to clean up Fernald.

Schweitzer vice president Dan Lynch said he believes FERMCO has ignored his company's safety warnings ''because the entire vitrification project is behind schedule; FERMCO has been repeatedly financially penalized for numerous delays; and that the company is more interested in rushing the project than workers' safety.''

Cutting the top out of the dome ''is a disaster waiting to happen and who should know better than us? We're the company who built and installed the equipment and materials they're going to use to try and remove the top of that silo,'' Mr. Lynch said.

Mr. Lynch detailed his concerns over the silo project in a May 16, 1995 letter to Richard L. McGuire, FERMCO's project engineer. ''The eye bolts specified for the dome have a minimum embedment length of 4 inches per the manufacturer. FERMCO drawings only indicate a 3.5-inch embedment. We will install them with only 3.5 inches of embedment. Since this installation will not meet the (bolt) manufacturers requirements, we can not be responsible if the bolts do not perform as expected.''

On Aug. 23, 1995, Schweitzer Co. president Ron Schweitzer wrote to Mr. McGuire: ''We are extremely concerned that if the anchors (bolts) are installed as directed that they may not work and could cause injury to personnel working on the dome and relying on the holding power of the anchors (bolts). FERMCO Q - A concurs with the 'hold' on this work.''

Schweitzer officials also said that they discovered the dome averaged only three inches in thickness and below the surface the concrete of the dome is wet, flaky and badly corroded. ''We believe that when FERMCO has someone try to cut the top of that dome off, the concrete is so weak the bolts intended to hold up the rest of the dome will pull out and the dome will crash,'' Mr. Lynch told The Enquirer.

Despite FERMCO's own Quality Assurance official questioning the safety of the installation, FERMCO ordered the company to install the bolts, which Schweitzer did between Aug. 23 and Sept. 1, 1995.

In a written response to Enquirer questions about the Schweitzer warnings, Gary Stegner, the Energy Department's Fernald spokesman, said the department ''is reviewing FERMCO's decision-making process and technical data for the Silo 4 project. No conclusions have been reached at this time.''

Schweitzer hired in '94

FERMCO hired Schweitzer in 1994 to build a superstructure above the test silo; attach cables from the superstructure to 16 bolts embedded in the dome to hold it up when the center section is cut out of it; and attach three cables to bolts in the center section to lift it out after it is cut.

The entire dome is about 81-feet in diameter and weighs several tons, according to various independent studies of the silo conducted between 1986 and 1992.

Schweitzer's work has been completed. FERMCO and Energy Department records show no subcontractor has yet been hired to cut out and remove the dome's center section, but plans are under way to solicit bids for the work. The dome-top removal is scheduled to be conducted between Oct. 1 of this year and Sept. 30, 1997, according to Energy Department records.

Another safety concern, said Mr. Lynch, is that FERMCO's design plans called for slack in the cable lines.

''The cables should be taut to hold up the remaining dome after the center is cut out and removed,'' Mr. Lynch said. ''Slack cables mean if the dome starts to fall, the cables will catch and then snap taut, pulling out those bolts from the corroded concrete.''

FERMCO officials said they believe the slack cable lines were properly designed.

In a written response to Enquirer questions about the silo project, FERMCO officials conceded they permitted the bolts in the dome to be embedded less than the 4 inches as specified by the bolt manufacturer and their own designs. The reason, according to FERMCO: The bolt manufacturer said it was OK to do it if the dome's concrete was solid enough.

When asked how they determined whether the concrete was solid enough, FERMCO officials said an ''ultrasound'' test was conducted on the dome in 1993 which showed the density of the concrete was adequate. FERMCO officials said they did not drill into the dome - as the Schweitzer Co. did last year - to either determine the dome's actual thickness or how solid it was. The company also did not say why the ultrasound test in 1993 showed the dome averaged more than 4 inches in thickness, when the Schweitzer Co.'s actual drilling and measurements revealed the dome only averages about 3 inches.

Asked how they installed the bolts in the thin concrete, Mr. Lynch told The Enquirer, ''We were forced to rig up a stack of washers on the bottom of the tool we used to install the bolts. This prevented the bolts from being embedded to the depth they were supposed to be.''

Mr. Lynch said the bottom of each bolt contains a 'flange' that springs out and 'grabs' the concrete to prevent it from being pulled out once the bolt is embedded. ''What that means is the top portion of the bolt that is also designed to be embedded in the concrete is now popping out the top of the dome. And the flange is only grabbing the concrete at about 2 1 - 2-to-3 inches, instead of the required four inches. This is a dangerous situation, no matter what FERMCO tries to say.''

Terry Hagen, FERMCO director of environmental compliance, conceded that embedding the bolts in less than 4 inches of concrete ''defeats the purpose of the flush mounting.'' Despite that finding, FERMCO found the work ''acceptable,'' Mr. Hagen said.

Nick Lacey, spokesman for DRILLCO DEVICES LTD. of Long Island City, N.Y. - the company that manufactures the bolts used by the Schweitzer Co. - told The Enquirer that ''The minimum standard and requirement for that particular bolt is that it be embedded in 4 inches of concrete.''

Mr. Lacey declined to discuss FERMCO's insistence that the bolts be installed without a 4-inch embedment. ''The instructions and standards for those bolts were provided and they clearly state they must be embedded in at least 4 inches of concrete.''

Mr. Lacey also declined to comment on FERMCO's recent claims that DRILLCO allows the 4-inch bolts to be embedded in less than the minimum requirements as long as the dome's concrete was ''solid'' enough to handle the load.

Published June 3, 1996.