Costs cloud cleanup of Parks nuclear waste site
Before continuing with the cleanup of the nuclear waste dump in Parks, the Army Corps of Engineers will have to justify the escalating costs of digging up and removing the waste.
Col. Butch Graham, the outgoing commander of the corps' Pittsburgh District, on Tuesday said the federal Superfund law that governs the cleanup of hazardous waste sites requires a review process when a project exceeds its original cost estimate by 50 percent.
The excavation of the Parks site, formally known as the Shallow Land Disposal Area, was projected to cost about $45 million in 2007.
Five years later, as the complexity of the materials found and the safety precautions required has amplified, the estimate is approaching $500 million.
Graham said he and his successor as district commander, Col. Bernard Lindstrom, likely will have to present a justification of the project and its costs to their division commander, Brig. Gen. Margaret W. Burcham.
Graham's announcement of a review worried residents, former employees and their relatives who gathered for a public hearing on Tuesday at the Parks fire hall.
Tom Haley, who worked as an engineer for the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC), the site's former owner, questioned whether Burcham could reverse course and opt to have the nuclear waste encapsulated and left on-site, rather than be excavated and removed.
“It's possible,” Graham said. “But do I see that as a likely outcome? I really don't. I'm not overly concerned of any drastic changes.”
In addition to the Superfund law, Graham said the Parks cleanup is governed by a second federal law sponsored by the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha that requires the site to be cleaned up.
Graham said he knows of no other practical way to accomplish that cleanup without removing the waste.
“That's alarming,” said Anita Navarro of Gilpin. “You've got things rolling. You can't stop midstream.”
If a review is required, Graham said there could be another series of public hearings and options for public comment, similar to when the excavation plan was developed in 2007.
That process could begin in January or February.
New contractor sought
Meanwhile, Graham said the plan remains to seek a new contractor to replace Cabrera Services, the contractor initially hired to handle the cleanup.
Cabrera will remain involved in the project, primarily providing site maintenance, according to Corps spokesman Dan Jones. But the company's involvement in the remediation work will draw to a close by year's end.
Cabrera employees allegedly violated safety procedures in fall 2011 when excavated radioactive material was placed too close together. That risked what's called a criticality — a chain reaction that could release unsafe levels of radiation.
Graham said Cabrera removed about 10 percent of the estimated 24,300 cubic yards of nuclear-contaminated waste believed to be buried at the 44-acre site off Route 66.
The site received the waste from about 1960 to the early 1970s from nuclear-fuels processing plants in Apollo and Parks that were operated by NUMEC and its successor, Atlantic Richfield Co.
BWX Technologies is the current owner of the dump site.
Noting that it took five years to dig up 10 percent of the waste, audience members questioned whether it would take 45 more years at that pace to clear the site.
Graham said once a new contractor is on board and work begins again — possibly in 2014 — they initially will be cautiously slow until the contractor is familiar with the site and the corps is certain it can handle the job.
Then he expects the pace to pick up.
He noted the 10 percent of material already removed occurred in just one month of digging.
Graham said the corps likely will switch to what's called a cost-plus contract process with the new contractor. Rather than accept competitive bids that lock a contractor in to an upfront cost, the corps plans to have the new contractor submit bills for the actual costs as they go. The corps then will add a percentage to meet the contractor's profit margin.
Graham said the new system will take away the incentive to just “dig, dig, dig.” But it also will require more oversight from the corps.
In addition to Lindstrom, that oversight will come from new project manager Mike Helbling.
Another concern brought up Tuesday was how nearby residents would be notified and evacuated in the event of an emergency.
Brenda Milliman, who lives above the dump site, noted there is only one road out of her neighborhood and it passes the site.
Randy Brozenick, director of Armstrong County Emergency Management, said a reverse 911 phone system that alerts residents in an emergency should be ready before any work resumes.
Graham said the corps also would work with Brozenick to distribute an evacuation plan for residents.
Patty Ameno, an environmental activist from Leechburg, reaffirmed her belief that the corps is the best agency to oversee the cleanup.
She asked that the corps stay the course in removing, rather than encapsulating, the waste.
“There's absolutely no other option but total removal for this community,” she said. “We have already paid for this, with our health and with our lives.”
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.