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Decision time yet again on whether to remove nuclear waste from Parks site

Mary Ann Thomas
| Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, 12:42 a.m.
Storage drums with unknown contents sit outside the nuclear waste dump site in Parks Township on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Storage drums with unknown contents sit outside the nuclear waste dump site in Parks Township on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014.

After more than 20 years of wrangling, the federal government has to decide — yet again — whether it will remove and ship out the buried nuclear waste at a dump on Route 66 in Parks.

The Pittsburgh District of the Army Corps of Engineers, the lead agency for a proposed 10-year cleanup that could cost up to $500 million, has not set a date for that decision. But before it does decide, the corps will hold a meeting in the spring to get public testimony on what it should do. The meeting has not been scheduled.

The project has grown much more complicated and expensive, causing the government to rethink what should be done.

“People should be concerned that Congress has little appetite to clean up environmental messes and U.S. Rep. John Murtha is gone,” said Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and former senior policy adviser to the secretary of the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration

When the cleanup plans sputtered and stalled in the 1990s, Murtha, the late congressman from Johnstown, initiated legislation in 2002 mandating the Army Corps take over the cleanup and remove the nuclear contamination from the site.

Although that agency is the first to put shovel to ground and remove nuclear contaminants, it had to rethink its role two years ago when workers unearthed greater-than-expected amounts of complex nuclear materials. The project price tag skyrocketed.

Originally estimated at between $21.5 million and $65.6 million in 2002, estimates rose to $170 million in 2010. Those have since ballooned to $250 million to $500 million.

U-235 and U-233

Two volatile types of uranium — U-235 and U-233 — are present on the site. Known as “fissile materials,” they can cause a nuclear chain reaction or be used for an improvised explosive.

What's not clear is how much of the material has been found.

The corps refuses to release any information on the variety and quantities of isotopes found so far. The Army denied a Freedom Of Information Act request for documents from the Valley News Dispatch in 2012 regarding the materials.

According to a Sept. 17, 2012, letter to the newspaper, most of the requested documents on the nuclear dump are classified as “Secret” by the assistant secretary of Defense.

The site is protected by the Department of Homeland Security. That could indicate the corps dug up enough fissile materials to reclassify the site to what's called “Category 1” — denoting high security.

The cost for security and removing Category 1 materials dramatically increases the cost of a cleanup — and poses other issues, according to Alvarez.

“If, indeed, there is a sizable quantity of Category 1 material, you can't just leave it there,” Alvarez said. “You have people living there. This is not on a federally guarded nuclear enclave or someplace in the middle of the desert.

“That's the conundrum here, of course,” he said. “The Corps of Engineers' budgets have been cut like everything else. Something like this blows a hole in their budget. It's a difficult situation.”

Sen. Bob Casey is pressing for the needed funding and the cleanup.

“As we move forward, I will continue to press the Army corps and other relevant federal agencies to clean up the SLDA site in a timely manner,” Casey said.

For Kiski Valley nuclear activist Patty Ameno, restarting the decision process is frustrating.

In the 1990s, the site owners and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission proposed to keep on-site the buried radioactive materials, some of which last for millions of years. Residents, lawmakers and Ameno railed against the proposal and urged Murtha, who represented the area in Congress, to find another regulatory agency to remove the nuclear waste.

Army corps deja vu

This is the second time in two years the Army corps is reviewing its role in the cleanup.

“Given the increased knowledge of the dangers of that site and the specific kinds of materials that have been brought up, this is absolute insanity and illustrates a total disregard for human health, safety and the environment,” Ameno said. “It's quite apparent that the major factor is the money, and having these regulatory decisions again, it just fuels the delays.”

“Cost can certainly be a driver, but a cleanup on the order of $250 million to a half- billion dollars is not unusual for a site with challenges,” said Tom Clements, the nonproliferation policy director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability in Columbia, S.C.

The worst Department of Energy nuclear sites are costing billions of dollars to clean up.

“For the Parks site, the problem is, will this have priority in the minds of the appropriators under increasing budget stress?” Clements asked.

The Army corps has said repeatedly that funding has not been a problem for the project.

But that could change.

There are proposed cuts in the 2014 Corps of Engineers budget for the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, which pays for the Parks cleanup.

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

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