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Army Corps of Engineers to remain in charge of Armstrong nuclear waste cleanup

Mary Ann Thomas
| Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, 3:14 p.m.

PARKS — After halting the cleanup of the BWX Technologies toxic waste dump last year, the Army Corps of Engineers announced on Monday that it will continue to lead cleanup operations.

It did not, however, say when removal of radioactive and toxic chemical waste will resume.

The waste dump along Route 66, known formally as the Shallow Land Disposal Area, received radioactive and chemical waste from the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) in Apollo and Parks, and BWX predecessor Atlantic Richfield Co. All produced nuclear fuel for submarines and a range of nuclear products for the federal government and private industry.

In a public meeting last month in Parks Township, residents, along with federal, state and local lawmakers, voiced their support and preference for the Corps to continue the cleanup rather than those duties be transferred to another federal agency.

“The people of the Kiski Valley have certainly put trust in the Corps of Engineers for the cleanup to be done safely and efficiently,” said Col. Butch Graham, commander of the Corps' Pittsburgh District, which includes Armstrong County.

“We're committed to do just that,” he said. “We won't let them down.”

The Corps also announced that it is looking for a new contractor.

Cleanup operations ceased last year at the 44-acre site when a contractor allegedly mishandled some nuclear waste. In addition, workers unearthed unexpected quantities of “complex” nuclear materials.

Given the greater complexity of the site cleanup and soaring cost estimates of as much as $500 million for the 10-year project, Army Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., put on the brakes to decide if it would still lead the project.

The Parks nuclear waste dump is one of 24 active sites in 10 states in the Corps' Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP).

It's a program for mostly low-level radioactive contamination from the Manhattan Project, the top-secret pro-ject that produced the world's first atomic bombs, and for early Atomic Energy Commission operations.

To make a decision, the Corps met with a number of agencies in Washington behind closed doors, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the U.S. Department of Energy, and Homeland Security, which has a noticeable presence with armed guards at the dump site.

“Through discussions with the federal family, it was agreed upon that the Corps of Engineers would continue to lead the cleanup for SLDA,” said Candice Walters, a spokeswoman for the Corps headquarters in Washington.

She went on to say that there is no “special” funding for the project and that the Corps will continue to use some of the appropriated FUSRAP funds for the work.

“Many factors were evaluated in the decision-making process and although the Corps will be the lead, we will be working very closely with DOE and NRC throughout the process,” Walters said.

David McIntyre, a spokesman for the NRC said, his agency plans to “continue our cooperation and consultation with the Corps.”

U.S. Senator Bob Casey Jr., who met with Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy last month and urged for a total cleanup said, “While today's announcement is a step toward resuming cleanup at the Armstrong County nuclear site, the Army Corps should immediately take actions to expedite the contract process so that the cleanup can restart right away.”

Graham said that the Army Corps is seeking a new contractor but he would not estimate when the project would re-start.

Comments from last month's public meeting in Parks plus other submitted comments were sent to Corps headquarters for consideration.

Many residents living near the waste dump and in neighboring communities opposed the possibility of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission taking the reins, again.

It was dissatisfaction with the NRC's lack of progress for a cleanup that prompted the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha in 2002 to legislate authority of the cleanup to the Army Corps.

When the community and Leechburg environmental activist Patty Ameno learned that the cleanup was in limbo earlier this year, they submitted letters of support for the Corps signed by local officials while communities such as Leechburg and Parks Township passed resolutions calling for the Corps to finish the job.

“I'm glad that Assistant Secretary Darcy heard the people's voices to keep the Corps on this project,” Ameno said.

Because of the community's history with the NRC, state Rep. Joe Petrarca, D-Washington Township, welcomed the Army Corps announcement.

“The Army Corps, unlike the NRC, is looking at this with fresh eyes and they are interested in fixing what is wrong and cleaning this up as thoroughly as possible.”

All three Parks Township supervisors backed the Army Corps to continue to the project. Bud Shannon, supervisors chairman, said, “We're delighted with the news. It's in the best interest of everyone involved.”

Ameno said she still would like to see the scope of the cleanup project enlarged to include more thorough testing of land outside of the boundaries of the 44-acre dump site and abandoned underground coal mines under the site.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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