Local citizens went to extremes to get answers
Former Apollo councilwoman Cindee Virostek collected thousands of documents and lobbied in Washington, D.C., in the fight for public health and safety during the cleanup of the former NUMEC facility in her town.
Her dining room became an office. Her china closet, a file cabinet.
Virostek, 47, was an environmental activist for about 14 years, starting in 1984 with the Kiski Valley Coalition to Save Our Children.
The nuclear fuel plant in Apollo opened in 1957 and ceased operations in 1983. The original owner was NUMEC, then the Atlantic Richfield Co. and Babcock & Wilcox ran it during its final years.
She and a handful of residents took the companies and the government to task for the cleanup of the Apollo site during the mid 1990s.
"It was frustrating, getting answers and nobody wanted to give you the information," Virostek said. "We would go to local government meetings, they would say 'You have to go to the federal government,' and then they said 'You have to go back to your local officials.'"
After paying a visit to U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, in Washington, D.C., Virostek and other residents lobbied for help in cleaning up the Apollo site.
"We had our demands - mainly the money for the cleanup."
The trip paid off: Murtha wrote in a $30 million appropriation for the cleanup as part of the defense appropriations budget.
The cleanup, ultimately costing about $70 million, was paid for by the defense appropriation and the owners of the site, Babcock & Wilcox and the Atlantic Richfield Company.
She and other residents questioned cleanup activities such as crushing bricks and the potential of spreading radioactive dust into the air.
During the height of the cleanup, 1993-1994, Virostek fought for and got an independent oversight group to monitor the cleanup.
The site was one of 42 nationwide on the NRC's priority list for radiation cleanup.
Virostek collected more than 50,000 documents. "The documents provided evidence to get this plant out of here," she said. "And the office - they wiped it off the face of the earth."
More than 800,000 cubic feet of contaminated soil and building rubble were removed and sent to low-level waste disposal sites. The cleanup was completed in 1995.
The site was released for unrestricted use in 1997, making it the first major fuel facility in the nation to achieve "green-field" status.
Still, Virostek has questions about the site.
"We still never did find out what all took place here," she said.
NUMEC received many classified work orders from the Departments of Defense and Energy. The plant took on first-of-a-kind contracts for nuclear fuels.
"We don't know what we've been exposed to," Virostek said. "We just have bits and pieces of information."
She walked around town wearing a sandwich board. She's been arrested for speaking her mind at public meetings. She's bullied and badgered lawmakers on every level of government, and she did most of it after having one of two tumors removed from her brain.
But perhaps the best jibe Patty Ameno, 50, of Leechburg, ever delivered to those she sees as a threat to the residents of the Kiski Valley was Fred Baron - one of the nation's top environmental lawyers.
Bill Silkwood, father of Karen Silkwood, recommended Baron to Ameno during a telephone conversation in the early 1990s. An employee at the Kerr-McGee nuclear processing plant in Oklahoma, Karen Silkwood lobbied for safety controls in her plant, exposing serious safety violations.
She died in a mysterious car crash on her way to a meeting with a union representative. It's been widely speculated that she was carrying evidence of the safety violations when she died.
Baron's firm, Baron and Budd of Dallas, took on the Apollo case in 1994, on a contingency basis - no money up front from the citizens.
After providing much documentation to Baron, Ameno said of the attorney, "I was more relieved than surprised he took on the case."
A federal court awarded $36.7 million to eight Apollo-area residents in 1998 who sued Atlantic Richfield Co. and Babcock & Wilcox alleging radioactive releases from their plants caused various cancers.
The court overturned its decision, and a new trial or settlement is pending, according to Baron. The case now has about 400 plaintiffs.
Ameno has suffered through a uterine tumor and cervical cancer, and she recently was diagnosed with a growth on her breast. A plaintiff in the lawsuit, Ameno lived across the street from the NUMEC plant in Apollo.
"Patty was an impetus to the hiring of our firm and provided a great deal of guidance and information throughout the case," Baron said during a phone interview this year.
Currently, Ameno is calling for an investigation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's conduct at the Parks site. She also is fighting for the removal of radioactive waste there.
Ameno said of her dedication, "Besides, all my friends and neighbors getting sick and dying of cancers and other illness, I've been seeking the truth about how these two nuclear sites and waste dump operated.
"It became very apparent early on that this community as a whole, to include the workers, has been lied to - not only by the companies, but by the regulatory agencies responsible for these sites.
"One thing I feel is essential for this community is to come full circle. This community is owed medical monitoring and help with economic recovery."
Closely working with U.S. Rep. John Murtha, Ameno supplied documents and reasons to search for more contamination and cleanup options at the Parks site.
"Pat Ameno's work on the local sites and community concerns is in the highest tradition of citizen activism," said Murtha, D-Johnstown.
"Although she's sometimes been controversial and confrontational, through her efforts, agencies and people are involved that never would have been otherwise," he said. "I've always felt that with dedication, one person can make a difference, and Pat has in this case."
A number of residents helped collect documents and locate sources for this series, including: Patty Ameno of Leechburg; Philomena Newhouse of Parks, Cindee Virostek of Apollo, various government officials and former NUMEC workers. The Valley News Dispatch received a research grant from the Morris K. Udall Archives Visiting Scholars Program at the University of Arizona library in Tucson.