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Parks Township nuclear waste cleanup could last until 2031

| Thursday, May 25, 2017, 12:06 a.m.

Be prepared for a long ride as the Army Corps of Engineers cleanup of the nuclear waste dump in Parks Township could last into 2031.

The Corps last month awarded a $350 million contract to Jacobs Field Services North America Inc. of Oak Ridge, Tenn., to excavate and remove nuclear waste off the 44-acre site along Route 66.

“You can't accelerate the cleanup,” said Mike Helbling, Corps project manager Wednesday evening. “It's a tricky project,” he said.

Corps officials, including both commanders of the Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y. districts and Corps experts on hydrogeology, air quality and health physics fielded questions from residents during an update meeting Wednesday night at the Parks Township Volunteer Fire Department.

Four officials from Armstrong County Department of Public Safety answered a number of questions, too.

Although the public knew that the cleanup will be an estimated 10-year project, give or take a few years, it finally sunk in excavation will only begin in 2019, after the new contractor drafts 19 separate work plans and readies the site.

The Corps shut down operations at the waste dump nearly six years ago — only a month into the dig — when officials say a contractor mishandled nuclear material and encountered greater amounts of complex nuclear materials than was expected.

The Corps then re-examined its role, revisited its previous decisions and formalized the roles of its federal partners for the cleanup: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

“I am committed to make this right,” said Corps Pittsburgh District Col. John P. Lloyd. “The health and safety of your community is first and foremost.”

The Corps presented groundwater testing results for 2015 and 2016. There were no contaminant levels violating drinking water standards in wells that are between the dump's burial trenches and residents who live next door in the Kiskimere neighborhood.

The Corps splits its samples with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ensure accuracy.

Corps test results also found that the contamination from the 10 disposal trenches did not appears to be spreading.

Still, residents who hadn't met with the Corps in a few years had questions about the cleanup's safety and the readiness of emergency services.

“How are we getting off the hill if something happens,” asked John Voyten, 69, of Kiskimere. “There's only one way in and one way out.”

The Corps is limited in what it can do beyond the cleanup, Helbling said. He said the agency will work with Armstrong County and the state to see what can be done.

Environmental activist Patty Ameno from Hyde Park has been asking for an alternative way out Kiskimere since the cleanup plans were underway.

But Wednesday night, Ameno asked again for a temporary containment building over the site of the trenches when they are excavated to alleviate potentially radioactive dust and increase safety.

Another issue for some residents was trusting a new beginning for the cleanup after the Corps fired its last contractor.

“Will the new contractor be able to know plutonium, and that it doesn't mix with things?” asked Perry Roberts, 55, who lives about a half-mile from the site.

Helbling reassured residents on the expertise of its new contractor.

Residents wanted to know how they will be alerted if there is an emergency at the site. Armstrong County Department of Public Safety is asking Kiskimere as well as all county residents to sign up for a reverse 911 service for emergency notifications.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4691, mthomas@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib

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