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Army Corps of Engineers revises plan for nuclear cleanup in Parks

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Army Corps of Engineer tried to allay the fears of residents during a public meeting last night as the cost and complexities of the nuclear waste cleanup escalate at a toxic dump owned by BWX Technologies along Route 66.

A crowd of about 80 residents, government representatives and some contractors attended the meeting at the Parks Township Volunteer Department.

The Army Corps was tasked by Congress to remove and ship out nuclear waste from 10 trenches in the 44-acre site from about 1960 to the early 1970s, which received nuclear and chemical waste from the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) in Apollo and Parks.

After starting and stopping excavation last year on two trenches because of a breach of safety procedures, the agency is shopping for a new contractor, changing its management team at the site and revising its cleanup plans and budget.

The estimated cost has ballooned from $170 million to a range of $250 million to a half-billion dollars.

The cleanup is expected to take 10 years.

"If we can't do this safely, we're going to stop," said Col. Butch Graham, commander of the corps Pittsburgh District.

And that's exactly what the corps did when it halted digging late last summer after the corps says its prime contractor mishandled some nuclear waste.

But also giving the corps pause was what they learned about the site after digging into two of trenches: That a greater amount of complexity is involved in handling the contaminated dirt and debris.

"We knew there were going to be a lot of unknowns out there," Graham said, "And we're going to take that knowledge and make the plan better."

Graham declined to specify what kind of radioactive contaminants were causing the cleanup complexities.

But NUMEC discarded a range of enrichments of uranium, plutonium, thorium, a variety of radiologically contaminated scrap, and a host of toxic chemicals.

Site studies suggest that some of the trench contents have commingled, posing other cleanup challenges.

"Based on security concerns, it's unwise to report the exact nature of the material," Graham said.

But people wanted to know how the corps plans to safeguard against future contractor snafus and other problems.

"How are we to feel assured this won't happen again?" said Anita Navarro, who lives on Hungry Hollow Road, about one mile from the dump.

Graham said that his agency is looking for new contractors and will be more involved in oversight, making sure that site workers are properly trained.

What can't be done

While Graham reassured residents what the corps will do, he answered questions about what the corps can't do.

One resident who lives downhill from the dump site asked if the corps would test some of his soil, which was recently dug up.

Graham said the corps has neither the authority nor money to test outside of the dump area.

Another resident, Bill Secreto, of Jane Street in Kiskimere near the dump, asked if the corps will buy his property.

"We have a big investment in our home and we're proud of it," Secreto said. "But it's worthless."

Graham said that his agency doesn't have the authority to buy out residents or make real estate purchases.

Leechburg activist Patty Ameno said she wants to see the real estate values restored to the area and that's why she's been fighting for a safe and comprehensive cleanup for years.

"I don't want to see a repeat of Apollo," she said referring to the razing of the nuclear fuel plant there and longtime lack of development.

Ameno added: "This is not going to happen overnight."

Mary Ann Thomas can be reached at

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