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Worries follow contaminated ash to landfill

| Monday, Nov. 7, 2005

Supervisors in East Huntingdon Township want answers from environmental officials before a load of uranium-contaminated waste from Allegheny Township is shipped to a landfill there.

"This maybe wasn't the best decision," said township supervisor Howard Keefer, who penned a letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection Friday, asking for another review of the plan.

In October, DEP issued a permit to the Kiski Valley Water Pollution Control Authority to remove 12,000 cubic meters of uranium contaminated ash from a former wastewater treatment lagoon in Allegheny Township. The ash is slated to go to the Greenridge Landfill in East Huntingdon before the end of this year.

The ash was contaminated between 1978 and 1984 by uranium from the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. and its successor companies, Atlantic Richfield and Babcock and Wilcox. The companies manufactured nuclear material for military and industrial use at sites in Apollo and Parks. The companies had a contract with the pollution control authority -- the Kiski Valley's sewage processing authority -- to treat waste water from the sites.

At least 400 area residents and former workers have died or have illnesses caused by the nuclear-fuel processing that happened at the sites, according to lawsuits and claims filed with the federal government.

One of those residents, Patty Ameno, said she fears residents near the East Huntingdon landfill are about to inherit the Kiski Valley's nuclear problems.

"People there need to scream," Ameno said.

Keefer said the DEP officials notified the township that some waste would be headed for the local landfill, but they didn't say it was contaminated with uranium.

A complex of Southmoreland School District buildings -- a high school, middle school and elementary school -- sits near the landfill, Keefer said. Trucks carrying the uranium-contaminated ash will share the road with school buses, he said.

"The schools are within such a distance that we hope this decision wasn't made solely on an economic basis," Keefer said.

Alvin Smith, a Beaver County resident who works for EnviroCare of Utah, a nuclear waste disposal company, said economics is driving the decision. Smith's company disposed of some of the contaminated waste from the Parks facility.

He said disposing of the ash in a municipal landfill should cost about $27 per ton. Putting it in a low-level nuclear waste facility would cost $50-$300 per cubic foot, Smith said. He estimated disposing of the 12,000 cubic meters of ash would cost $19 million if put into a low-level waste facility. Under the current plan, the disposal would cost less than $1 million.

"That's the difference," Smith said.

Since B&W ceased operation in 1984 a succession of cleanup projects have aimed to rid the former sites of contamination, including the ash in the waste water lagoon. The pollution control authority sought to remove the ash in 1993 when the lagoon was closed because it is full. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission stopped the cleanup plan, however, ruling that the uranium contaminated ash could not be moved.

Early this year, the NRC reversed its decision, declaring the ash is no longer a regulated material. The change in the commission's position is related to changes in the way the state and federal governments measure radioactivity, according to the chief of DEP's radioactive materials section.

In 1994, the NRC measured the concentration of uranium in the ash and ruled it was higher than acceptable levels for ordinary landfill waste. Today, however, the NRC measures uranium based on the dosage of radiation a person would receive from the contaminated material. Under the new measure, the lagoon ash is considered safe.

In essence, the change means the NRC now considers the ash the same as any other non-contaminated soil, even though the amount of radioactive material in it hasn't changed. The change also meant the water pollution control authority and DEP could proceed with decade-old plans to move the ash into a municipal landfill.

"This is an unusual decision," Smith said.

For peace of mind, authority director Bob Kossak said the agency would carefully monitor the ash leaving the facility for nuclear contamination.

Responding to concerns from Kiski Valley residents in August, the DEP added more precautions. It will require trucks carrying the ash to be lined and carefully cleaned. DEP spokeswoman Betsy Mallison said the precautions weren't designed to protect against nuclear contamination, but because any dirt that falls on roadways is a driving hazard.

Keefer said his township has a good working relationship with DEP. He stopped short of demanding the agency stop the transfer of the lagoon ash, but he said supervisors want DEP to address their concerns.

"If something happened after and you didn't bring things up, you'd feel bad," Keefer said.

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