Corps of Engineers ponders next step at nuke dump
After finding greater quantities of "complex" nuclear material than was expected at the former NUMEC nuclear waste dump in Parks, the fate of the Army Corps of Engineers cleanup is in question.
Officials at corps headquarters in Washington are rethinking if their agency, their program and their plan is right for the cleanup.
And they're not saying much, only that they are working on a decision.
The dump along Route 66 operated from about 1960 to the early 1970s, receiving nuclear and chemical waste from the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) in Apollo and Parks.
The Army corps took over jurisdiction of the cleanup in 2002 as part of legislation written by the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha.
For years, activists and residents lobbied public officials for help as NUMEC's successors, BWX Technologies (Babcock & Wilcox) and former owner, the Atlantic Richfield Co., proposed keeping the nuclear waste on site, which would have remained radioactive for thousands of years.
The corps is the only agency to actually put a shovel in the ground to remove the contaminants since a cleanup first was proposed more than two decades ago.
But digging ceased about six weeks ago after excavation of the waste pits began when a contractor allegedly mishandled some nuclear material and "complex" nuclear material was found.
No government entity -- the corps nor the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- will fully define what complex nuclear material is.
Throughout, Col. Butch Graham, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, Pittsburgh District, stressed that safety would drive cleanup operations.
"We're focused on safeguarding the workers and the community, not the speed of production," he said.
Work continued on packaging and shipping contaminants, but digging ceased and is not expected to resume anytime soon.
The scope of work and the pricetag has ballooned. Originally set at $170 million, the estimate now ranges from $250 million to $500 million, with a timeframe of up to a decade.
"They (headquarters) are asking if we should continue the project under the current program, FUSRAP (Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program), given that it is expected to cost more or are there other methods and organizations suited to do this job to address the contamination in the field," said Graham.
The Parks nuclear waste dump is one of 23 active FUSRAP sites in nine states. FUSRAP sites were part of the early atomic energy programs involving nuclear weapon production and peacetime activities from the 1940s through the 1960s.
These sites were typically contaminated with low levels of radioactive and mixed wastes.
The closest FUSRAP project regionally is the Superior Steel site in Carnegie/Scott Township, which is in the study phase.
Project review under way
Given the expansion of the project and costs at the Park site, a project review is normal, according to the corps.
"Because of the change of scope, I've got to go and report that to our headquarters because I don't have free reign over what to do with public money," Graham said.
"This happens no matter what project," he said.
Candice Walters, a spokeswoman from corps Washington headquarters said, "the federal family is looking at this and trying to figure out the way forward and make a decision as soon as possible."
For Leechburg activist Patty Ameno, this is bad news.
"What is extremely disturbing to me is the fact that government officials in D.C. from different agencies -- without any input from the local citizens -- are deciding our fate," she said. "(The options include) leaving the waste in place and a buy-out of some of the (neighboring) properties."
"To leave the waste, any of the waste, would jeopardize our entire area and it would be a repeat of Apollo to the 100th power," Ameno added.
One of the agencies weighing in on the discussion is the Nuclear Regulatory Agency, which has an advisory role with the cleanup.
David McIntyre, an NRC public affairs officer, said that his agency has been in contact with the corps over the future of the cleanup.
"It's hard to really speculate right now as to what is going to happen," McIntyre said.
One option includes taking the nuclear license for the Parks site, which is suspended during the cleanup, and "give the license back to (the NRC) and BWXT."
He added, "Because we are right in the middle of it. I'm not in a position to say what can come out one way or another."
Apparently neither is U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, Murtha's successor.
Matthew Mazonkey, Critz's chief of staff, declined to provide details and possible outcomes, including rumors the government is looking into buying out the homes in Kiskimere, a small community of about 50 homes next to the dump.
Although there have been rumors, there are no plans for any buy-outs, according to Army Corps of Engineers.
"Right now there is nothing to report that wasn't covered by the Army corps in the last public meeting," Mazonkey said last month.
"Based on the information provided at that meeting, the discussion among residents, we have a lot of unanswered questions that we are currently working through. As soon as we have answers we will responsibly update the local community."
Not soon enough for Ameno.
"This is not an issue about the project's budget," she said.
"This is using the budget as an excuse to have the corps stripped from this project," Ameno said. "Under the FUSRAP program, the 'responsible parties' are held accountable to reimburse the taxpayers' coffers for the cleanup, so budget is not the issue and neither is contractor expertise; that is acquired by having the project funded accordingly."