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Apollo residents still suffer from nuclear radiation despite $52M settlement

| Monday, April 20, 2009

Not even $52.5 million is enough to relieve all the damage and pain that nuclear radiation caused for years in Apollo and Parks Township, residents and claimants in a long-running legal battle said Sunday.

"We'll live with it forever," Helen Hutchison, 88, said of the area's nuclear contamination legacy. "Money doesn't cure the problem."

The U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh approved the $52.5 million settlement from Babcock & Wilcox on Friday to 365 claimants who alleged injury, wrongful death and property damage from years of contamination.

B&W, and its predecessors, the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. and the Atlantic Richfield Co., produced nuclear fuel and other products for the government at plants in Apollo and Parks Township from 1957-86.

Co-defendant Atlantic Richfield settled its portion of the case last year for $27.5 million.

Although the plants in Apollo and Parks have long since been razed, area residents continue to struggle economically and find it difficult to escape its reputation of nuclear contamination.

"The companies, the three of them, destroyed our town," said Hutchison, 88, widow of former Apollo mayor Jim Hutchison.

The couple were among the first residents to complain about emissions from the nuclear fuel plant in 1958 — a year after the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) set up shop in a former steel mill in the middle of Apollo.

"Jim and I complained to the borough," said Hutchison, who lived in the same block as the NUMEC office building on Seventh Street. "We had this ammonia odor and had ash coming out onto the porch — it was such a nuisance.

"We had to close our windows, and most of us didn't have air conditioners," she said. "We were sort of held captive with that."

The Hutchisons complained to the Department of Environmental Resources, predecessor of the state Department of Environmental Protection, and other agencies.

"They really never did anything," she said.

Hutchison remembered the late Cloud Nixon, a borough resident who complained about the ammonia odor and dust and tried to record levels of radiation in town with a Geiger counter.

"We were activists before any of this came to fruition," Hutchison said of the lawsuit.

Cindee Virostek, 54, of Apollo, a former Apollo borough councilwoman, held similar sentiments.

"I'm glad the lawsuit came to an end -- that's a good thing," said Virostek, one of the claimants. "But the lawsuit doesn't fully compensate people for their losses. And after 14 years of research by myself and other people, it does not bring closure as far as I'm concerned."

She said she is frustrated with still not knowing exactly what emissions came out of the plants.

"There are still unanswered questions," she said

Virostek credited Leechburg environmental activist Patty Ameno for continuing the fight.

"There were a few people involved in the fight to find out why our neighbors were dying, the fight to get the documents and the fights to find out what we were exposed to," Virostek said. "It will take a few people to stay involved to find out what actually took place."

The history of the Apollo and Parks Township plants and their role in developing nuclear applications, including work on nuclear weapons, should be documented and perhaps even taught in local schools, said William Kerr, former Apollo mayor, former Armstrong County commissioner and current superintendent of the Armstrong School District.

"Every aspect of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, environmental health, political science and economics -- you could use every core subject to illustrate what happened here," Kerr said.

Kerr said the saga holds many lessons, some of which he lived as Apollo mayor and Armstrong County commissioner.

"I was quoted in the newspaper as saying that B&W was a good neighbor," he said. "The company was involved in the StrongLand Chamber of Commerce and donated money to the fire companies and the library. They did provide good-paying jobs. But the negative side was from an environmental standpoint."

As a student at Apollo High School in the mid-1960s, near the NUMEC plant, Kerr remembers smelling ammonia and hearing "that weird hum at night."

Looking back, Kerr said, "if we only knew."

The community continues to suffer from legacy issues, he said.

"Apollo has a shrinking tax base and all the publicity has had a negative impact for the community. There needs to be a concerted effort to rebuild the community and get light industry development at the site of the B&W property."

Armstrong County Commissioner Jim Scahill agreed that the answer lies in redeveloping and moving on.

"This has been an open debate and an open wound to many people in the Kiski valley," Scahill said. "There are good people on both sides of the issue, and you can only hope the lawsuit helps bring some closure."

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