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NUMEC cleanup to begin after decades of wrangling

Mary Ann Thomas
| Sunday, June 20, 2010

The cost to remove radioactive dirt and debris from the nuclear waste dump along Route 66 in Parks has skyrocketed from $76 million to $170 million.

The increase adds to a growing tally of expenses related to the production of nuclear fuel at the former Nuclear Material and Equipment Corp. in Apollo and Parks from 1957 to the mid-1980s.

Lawsuits for personal injury and contamination, the razing and cleanup of two nuclear fuel plants and government payments to contaminated workers have topped $267 million over the last two decades.

The Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh, the federal agency charged by Congress to excavate and remove the radiological materials, revised its cost estimates as officials hammer out the details to start digging up the site next year.

"After better studying the site, evaluating other sites and federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission procedures and working with the contractor, the excavation of the materials safely is going to take longer than original estimates and the cost will go up," said Bill Lenart, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh.

Instead of a three-year excavation project finishing in 2013, the cleanup could take up to eight years, Lenart said.

Part of the revised estimate includes the potential for removing and shipping double the original estimate of 50,000 tons of contaminated dirt and debris.

Paying for the cleanup is not an issue now, according to Lenart, because it's a priority project that comes from a corps budget for Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, which investigates and cleans up some of the country's sites used for atomic energy and weapons development.

The late Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, entered legislation passed by Congress mandating the cleanup by the corps in the 2002 Defense Department appropriations budget.

Rep. Mark Critz, who is filling the remainder of Murtha's term, said, "I look forward to working with the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that the Parks Township (Shallow Land Disposal Area) continues to receive federal funding and that the cleanup is conducted in a safe and secure manner."

Digging up the contaminated pits slowly, foot-by-foot, testing and sorting the sensitive nuclear and chemical contaminants, plus winter shutdowns, are driving up the cleanup costs, according to the agency.

For Parks Supervisors Chairman Bud Shannon, the slow and methodical cleanup is welcome.

"I think it's a good thing and it tells me that this thing will be done for the safety of the citizens and the workers," he said.

Leechburg environmentalist Patty Ameno believes a thorough cleanup should cost even more and encompass potential contamination outside the boundaries of the dump.

"It is still not enough," Ameno said. "For the people of this area, for everything we've been plagued with, what dollar amount can be put on their health and safety• I don't think people here care how many millions just so it's cleaned up safely and comprehensively."

The investigation and cleanup of other potential contaminated sites near the dump would require an act of Congress, Lenart said.

Neighbors concerned as work at site expands

The much-feared radioactive waste buried at the Shallow Land Disposal Area in Parks doesn't look like much.

The trenches, covered by 3 to 4 feet of soil, are small fields with ankle-high grass interrupted by test wells.

After sitting dormant for 40 years, the dump is bustling with work crews, trailers, backhoes and wood chippers.

Two decades of ill-fated cleanup plans and false starts by the owners and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission have come to an end.

The first phase of the Army Corps of Engineers cleanup began this year and will continue this fall as the site is readied for the excavation of nuclear contaminated soil next year.

Work crews are laying a new access road to Route 66, rerouting a natural gas line and constructing the materials handling building and a water treatment plant.

The much anticipated cleanup is not sitting well with neighbors next door to the dump.

"It's a horrendous inconvenience," said Theresa Kolenchak, who lives across the street from the dump's Kiskimere Road entrance.

In addition to the noise from the site, water run-off from the dump enters her front yard when it rains, she said.

"Sometimes it's so bad it's like a swamp in my front yard," Kolenchak said.

"I don't know what's in that stuff that comes off that dump," she said. "It could be dangerous."

Some residents have complained about the dust from the site and the shearing of a row of trees between the dump and Kiskimere Road.

According to Bill Lenart, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh, Allegheny Power, is cutting the trees along Kiskimere Road, not the Corps.

As far as the dust making it to Kiskimere Road, crews sweep the dirt off the road daily, Lenart said. "The dust is coming from areas that we disturbed, which we tested and found almost background levels (of radiation). The dust poses no harm."

The Corps plans to meet with residents in Kiskimere to tell them more about what's going on and to address any of their concerns, said Jeff Hawk, spokesman for the Corps in Pittsburgh.

The first shovel won't hit the trenches until the spring of 2011, according to Lenart.

During the preparations for the cleanup, agency officials say they are not taking chances.

As work crews take down trees to clear areas for a quarter-mile long access road to Route 66, water treatment plant, and sprawling materials-handling building, technicians are boring holes in felled trees to test the pulp for radiological contamination.

"It's testing, testing, testing," Lenart says.

The corps spent several years testing the contents of the trenches and the 44-acre site before completing a final cleanup plan.

BWX Technologies still monitors the trenches at the site quarterly to measure if any radioactive material has moved, according to Lenart.

The Corps will take over that monitoring when excavation of the trenches starts in the spring of next year, Lenart says.

Additional Information:

How safe is safe?

The former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. and its successors, Babcock & Wilcox (BWX Technologies) and the Atlantic Richfield Co., operated two nuclear fuel plants in Apollo and Parks. They buried nuclear contaminated items in the Parks dump during the 1960s, including barrels of liquid waste, workers' clothing, heavy equipment and other contaminated items.

The Army Corps of Engineers has pledged safety before all else to the people of Kiskimere, the rest of Parks and the Parks Bends Industrial Park next door to the dump now owned by the BWX Technologies of Lynchburg, Va.

But there's mystery surrounding the 10 trenches where contaminated items were buried.

Although there are company records of some disposals, the state and range of the chemicals and radioisotopes is unclear. The contents have likely commingled over the years and officials want to take every precaution to prevent any dangerous reactions or migration of the nuclear materials.

To that end, the corps plans to dig the trenches foot-by-foot, identifying the contents in a new lab to be set up in a 150-foot-by-400-foot materials handling building.

Monitors will be placed throughout the site during the cleanup.

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