Samples from Parks nuclear dump site meet federal standards

Mary Ann Thomas
| Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, 12:12 a.m.

The Environmental Protection Agency didn't find chemical or radiological contamination above federal standards in 31 samples of ground and surface water and sediment near the nuclear dump along Route 66 in Parks.

The EPA, however, is unable to conclude that area residents are not being exposed to contaminants from the dump, formally known as the Shallow Land Disposal Area, and a former plutonium plant in the Kiskimere section of Parks.

The information is contained in a Nov. 30 EPA report, “Kiskimere Groundwater Well Investigation.”

In fact, the agency is calling for more testing of water seeping from the site into old mine shafts that could carry dump contaminants off site.

The agency conducted the tests last year to allay residents' concerns about drinking water quality amidst stories of alleged illegal dumping and potential contamination.

The nuclear waste dump received chemical and radioactive material from a former nuclear fuels plant in Apollo owned by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. and its successors, the Atlantic Richfield Co. and Babcock & Wilcox. The Parks site that received nuclear waste had been active from 1960 into the early '70s.

Currently, the Army Corps of Engineers is trying to excavate radiological and chemical contaminants at the 44-acre site and ship them out of state.

It's part of a cleanup that could take as long as a decade and cost as much as $500 million.

Although her well water passed EPA muster, Anita Navarro of Gilpin, who lives within a mile of the nuclear dump site, wasn't reassured by the report.

“The bottom line is: They are saying it is not a conclusive study,” she said.

Navarro was one of a dozen area residents who had their wells tested, even though she uses public water.

She is concerned about potential contamination of the abandoned mines and mine openings in the area. “There are mine shafts on both sides of my property,” Navarro said.

“The EPA is saying that there needs to be a more thorough investigation and, in my opinion, the EPA should be more involved.”

According to the report: “The Kiskimere neighborhood and (dump site) area should be further evaluated to ensure contaminants are not moving offsite.”

Among the findings was that groundwater is “showing unusual results in that it is unusually ‘clean' given the local mine activities and surrounding sites and past/present cleanup activities.”

Patty Ameno, the Leechburg environmental activist who requested the study, said it's great the EPA didn't find any contamination, concerns remain.

“The EPA has flagged several problem areas that warrant, in the name of public health, safety and the environment, continued investigation,” she said.

But the EPA came into the area to study just one aspect of potential contamination — drinking water.

Although many of the 50 or so homes in Kiskimere use public water, there are still some who use well water for drinking for themselves and their pets and to water vegetable gardens, according to the EPA report.

“Our focus was to answer the question as to whether or not residents were being exposed to contaminants via drinking water,” said Lisa Denmark-Johnson, site assessment manager for EPA Region III.

In that respect, the EPA only touched on a small part of a much larger puzzle of the complicated hydrology at the dump site, which includes the presence of so-called “water seeps” from an old coal mine underneath the nuclear waste dump.

The EPA said that because of the large number of seeps, more study is needed.

“Seeps allow groundwater to seep out of the ground and is a window into what is in the groundwater,” Denmark-Johnson said. “It's common, given acid mine drainage in the area.”

Potential and actual contamination of the mines has been a longtime concern.

In a Dec. 21, 1993, article in the Valley News Dispatch, Urte Barker, an engineer with ARCO, said uranium from one of 10 waste trenches was leaking into an abandoned coal mine off Kiskimere Road.

At that time, however, the amount of waste was small and not dangerous to public health, according to Barker.

The EPA will work with the Army corps in investigating the hazards and potential pathways for contamination from the nuclear waste site, Denmark-Johnson said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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