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Bill to fund atomic waste dump study

Ground water fears may bring cleanup

Saturday, March 30, 2002

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published April 2, 2002) Saturday's story about efforts to clean up nuclear waste from the Parks Township Shallow Landfill was inaccurate in saying that an Army Corps of Engineers preliminary assessment concluded that no site cleanup is necessary. The corps has not yet reached a conclusion on the cleanup but will continue to review data.

A controversial nuclear waste dump in Armstrong County is a step closer to cleanup because it poses a threat to the area's ground water and because it has earned the attention of U.S. Rep. John Murtha.

Even though a recent Army Corps of Engineers assessment of the 40-acre Parks Township Shallow Landfill found "no substantial radiological exposure threat to human health" and concluded no site cleanup was necessary, a bill submitted by Murtha, D-Johnstown, mandates that the corps develop a cleanup plan.

The corps review of the legal disposal site, 32 miles northeast of Pittsburgh along the Kiskiminetas River, does say mine subsidence could cause the radioactive waste to enter ground water and "present an imminent and substantial danger to human health and the environment."

"Because of the possibility of mine subsidence there's been a lot of public concern that what's in the landfill will get into the ground water," said Brad Clemenson, a Murtha spokesman.

"The corps assessment has determined that the waste could move into the water if subsidence occurs and become an urgent situation, so we're moving ahead."

Murtha's legislation appropriates $1 million to study the radioactive waste and determine how to accomplish the cleanup, which could be done by 2004.

Clemenson said the actual cleanup could cost as much as the $65 million it took to clean up a nuclear fuel production plant in nearby Apollo.

The disposal was done according to U.S. Atomic Energy Commission regulations by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Co. -- NUMEC -- which began making nuclear fuel at its Apollo manufacturing facility in 1957. The plant processed up to 450 metric tons of uranium a year.

The Atlantic Richfield Co. bought NUMEC in 1967, and in 1971 sold the site to Babcock & Wilcox, which changed its name to BWX Technologies. BWXT is the current license holder.

Patricia Ameno, an Apollo native who founded Citizens Action for a Safe Environment 13 years ago to fight for cleanup of the landfill and other nuclear sites in the Kiski Valley, said she's happy the project is finally moving ahead but cautious about its chances for success.

"What's happened here is an outrage," said Ameno. "I believe we're sitting on a ticking time bomb that could be set off by subsidence or a mine fire. If that happens you're looking at an environmental disaster that could affect a 25-square-mile area."

The estimated 23,500 cubic yards of wastes contaminated with uranium and thorium consist of slag, sludges and spent solvents, equipment, scrap and trash from the Apollo nuclear fuel fabrication facility. The waste was dumped from 1961 to 1970.

Thorium and uranium, ranging from depleted to highly enriched material, is buried in 10 trenches on 1.5 acres of the 40-acre site. Americium and plutonium also have been detected in soil samples.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has detected trichloroethylene, or TCE, an industrial solvent used at the Babcock & Wilcox plant, in the Kiskiminetas River, but so far has not found any radioactivity in water coming from the landfill.

The DEP says the chemical contamination is diluted enough that it does not endanger five public drinking water intakes on the Allegheny River, downriver from where the Kiskiminetas joins the Allegheny at Freeport.

"Subsidence is always a concern and adds another aspect to what we have to do at the site," said Patrick Shuster, a DEP spokesman. "If subsidence causes the radioactive material to fall into the ground water, we'd have a real mess on our hands."

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