EPA to test Kiski River sediment for nuclear, chemical contaminants

Mary Ann Thomas
| Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, 12:56 a.m.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will conduct extensive tests for nuclear and chemical contamination in the sediment of the Kiski River.

The surveys, which are scheduled for Monday through Wednesday, result from the EPA's continuing testing of areas near the Babcock & Wilcox nuclear waste dump in Parks Township.

Neighbors have long worried about contamination of the river across Route 66 from the dump and a former plutonium-processing plant. When two nuclear fuel plants discharged radioactive and chemical waste into the river starting in the late 1950s, residents joked that the Kiski had a “special glow.”

“If they do find an issue in the sediment, that could impact the recreation on the river if people are afraid of the river,” said Bob Kossak, manager of the Kiski Valley Water Pollution Control Authority and president of the Kiskiminetas River Watershed Association.

“If they find no issue, it will resolve a lot of concern that people have had because the sediment was not tested,” he said. “It will help people move on.”

No official concerns so far

Officials from the EPA and the state Department of Environment Protection say there are no nuclear or contamination issues that concern them so far.

“We've been closely monitoring the river,” said John Poister, DEP spokesman in Pittsburgh. “We have seen nothing that would indicate that there is a problem posed.”

Water quality tests haven't satisfied Leechburg environmental activist Patty Ameno, who brought in attorneys to file two federal lawsuits alleging nuclear contamination against former plant owners Babcock & Wilcox and the Atlantic Richfield Co.

For many years, she has pestered lawmakers and government agencies to test the sediment of the Kiski River.

Recently, she asked the EPA to test the water in wells and other areas outside of the Babcock & Wilcox nuclear waste dump as the Army Corps of Engineers cleans it.

“This is not a scare,” Ameno said. “I want to get this resolved because years from now, people could get exposed.”

The half life of U-235, a radioactive metal used in nuclear fuel and weapons, is 700 million years.

Monitors have found it in the Kiski River. However, the DEP determined that the U-235 was from acid mine drainage, according to Poister.

Poister said the DEP has tested the Kiski for decades and results show only a slight increase of U-235.

Rich Rupert, on-scene coordinator with EPA's mid-Atlantic region, said he is not aware of any radioactive contamination that is above federal standards in the river water.

But the river sediment could prove to be a different story.

Rupert said he would be surprised if he didn't find any contamination.

“We expect to find something because of naturally occurring uranium and residuals from a number of industries that discharged into the river over the years,” he said. “It might be impossible to tell the difference between what came from where.”

EPA will take about 30 sediment samples, upstream, downstream and near the former plutonium plant.

History of contamination

The Kiski River was a sewer for the steel, mining and nuclear industries for more than a century.

Although the water quality improved greatly with ever-increasing species of fish frequenting the water, there could still be areas of the river bottom or banks where contaminants are trapped and concentrated.

“When industry started in the valley in the 1800s, everything was discharged to the river prior to Kiski Valley Water Pollution Control Authority going online in 1975,” Kossak said. “It will be very interesting to see these test results.”

The EPA expects test results in about three months, according to Rupert.

Health physicists from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the EPA will review the findings before releasing them to the public.

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

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