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Group disputes radioactive ash burial safety

| Sunday, May 6, 2012, 2:35 p.m.

State environmental officials told a group of 30 or so people Wednesday that it's safe to bury radioactive ash in an East Huntingdon Township landfill.

To that, the group responded: Hogwash.

Farley Kalp, a lawyer and township resident, organized the meeting with people who live near the Greenridge Reclamation Landfill, which is where the Kiski Valley Water Pollution Control Authority plans to ship 12,000 cubic meters of radioactive ash.

The ash is leftover from the incineration of sewage generated by the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. and its successor companies, Atlantic-Richfield Co. and Babcock & Wilcox.

The ash was contaminated with uranium between 1978 and 1984. Right now, it's sitting in an old wastewater treatment lagoon in Allegheny Township.

The authority is under an order by the Department of Environmental Protection to dispose of it, and the landfill, located near Alverton, won the contract to do so.

But to receive a permit, the landfill had to show that once the ash was buried, it wouldn't emit more than 1 millirem, a unit that measures a person's exposure to radiation.

Average exposure to radiation in the United States is about 360 millirems per person per year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Web site.

But most residents who attended the meeting appeared to go into it unconvinced that it was safe to deposit the ash there, especially in a landfill so close to three Southmoreland School District buildings.

Superintendent John Halfhill has sent a letter to the DEP, asking the agency's officials to reconsider the decision. Township supervisors, too, indicated they are opposed to the plan.

Those at the meeting asked the DEP and the authority to come up with another solution.

Patty Ameno, an activist from Leechburg, told the audience that the ash and the uranium within is inherently dangerous.

"There are absolutely no safe levels of radiation exposure," she said. "It is the deadliest thing known to man."

But the DEP officials, when they weren't being shouted down, tried to say that while the ash is radioactive, the amount or radiation escaping from it would be safe.

One township resident, Sarah Seaton, challenged DEP officials to scoop up some of the ash and hold it.

Mike Forbeck, an environmental program manager, said he would, with no qualms.

And Dwight Shearer, chief of the radioactive materials section, said that if the law would allow, he'd use the ash in his driveway.

Nonetheless, residents who attended yesterday's meeting said they remain opposed to the plan.

"This stuff doesn't belong here," Seaton said.

"This stuff is deadly. Why put it in front of our kids?" said Gregg Thompson, of Ruffsdale. "The DEP doesn't care about these people," he said.

The meeting lasted for almost 2 1/2 hours. Few, if any, went away feeling any better about the plan.

"I'm not going to listen to the DEP," said Julie Martinosky. "They're discredited in my book as it is."

Part of the underlying problem is that many residents have long-standing issues with the landfill, chiefly the odor that it sometimes produces.

They say that neither the landfill nor the DEP has done enough to solve the problem.

"If they can't control the odor now, how can they control this type of waste?" said Leanne Barza, of East Huntingdon.

DEP spokeswoman Betsy Mallison said if residents have issues with the plan, they should call the landfill or the authority.

But she added that the DEP does not plan to review the project again.

"We've already made the decision," she said.

Individuals who want to voice their opposition may appeal the DEP's decision to the state's Environmental Hearing Board. The five-member panel of administrative law judges reviews all appeals of DEP decisions.

If the hearing board rules in favor of DEP's permit approval, opponents of the plan may appeal that decision to Commonwealth Court.

Reporter Wynne Everett, of the Valley News Dispatch in Tarentum, contributed to this story.

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