A surprise admission by a top federal administrator is raising some shocking new questions about how much that kids going to a nearby middle school and neighbors of a southern Ohio uranium-processing plant have been exposed to radioactive pollution during recycling efforts there since the start of the new millennium.
Paul Dabbar, undersecretary of science for the U.S, Department of Energy — which runs the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant that produced uranium for nuclear bombs throughout the Cold War — stunned local officials in Pike County with a letter admitting that DOE underreported contamination in the community near the site from 2001 until 2017.
The letter has angered area leaders already upset with DOE for sitting for two years on the knowledge that the highly dangerous radioactive substance neptunium-237 had been found near the Zahn’s Corner Middle School in Pike County. The school was abruptly closed in May when independent testing inside the school discovered enriched uranium there.
Dabbar, the DOE official, tried to claim that the years of underreporting – discovered by an independent contractor brought in by federal officials after the school shutdown – was “a minor miscalculation,” a statement that experts in radioactive pollution found laughable.
“Dr. Marco Kaltofen, a licensed civil engineer and associate research engineer at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who has worked with me for years on a number of important radiation lawsuits, including most recently the matter in Pike County, said the problem isn’t just that DOE has been underreporting radioactivity in the neighborhood surrounding the uranium plant but that its testing protocols are woefully inadequate.
Kaltofen explained that the only proper way to assess contamination in the community is to regularly test the air that people breathe, the water they drink every day, the soil in the yards of their homes, and anywhere else they might be exposed to contamination in their everyday activities.
“They haven’t done complete testing, and now what little they’ve done they admit that what they’ve done is incomplete and incorrect,” Kaltofen said after Dabbar’s letter was first reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer. “We’re so far from the mark, if it wasn’t so serious it would be comical.”
Kaltofen is currently engaged in comprehensive testing of the Piketon area outside the plant, where the middle school is located, as part of our effort to gain justice for the citizens of Pike County. A team of top environmental lawyers — with me as lead counsel – has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of residents within a 7-mile radius of the Portsmouth plant, naming United States Enrichment Corp., which oversaw uranium enrichment at the site after 1993, as well as a number of other contractors that have processed recycled radioactive materials there.
In my 30 years of environmental law, including major lawsuits involved radioactive pollution by Big Oil giants such as Exxon-Mobil and Chevron, I’ve rarely seen such an outrageous case. It’s hard to say which is worse — the reckless and negligent manner in which the world’s most dangerous materials have been managed at the Portsmouth site, or the DOE’s handling of the matter, which has alternated between no information and bad information.
It is only because of the efforts of dedicated community activists like Vina Colley, a former worker at the plant whose efforts revealed the government’s neptunium-237 finding from 2017 and who helped arrange for outside testing from Northern Arizona University, which led to the hasty closure of the middle school, that we know as much as we do about pollution in Pike County. The situation there has festered even as local residents say that at least five children in the Scioto Valley School District have been diagnosed with cancer within the last five years – a number which, if confirmed, would be statistically significant.
The Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant opened in 1954 at the height of the Cold War to enrich uranium for America’s atomic weapons but by the late 1960s had switched to nuclear energy work. The site has seen a variety of uses, including as a location for nuclear centrifuges and for storage of giant cylinders of depleted uranium hexafluoride, after the original uranium-enrichment work ceased in 2001. Past investigations — not by the government but by Ohio journalists — have shown that the plant has sent radioactive wastes or toxic chemicals into the local groundwater as well as the surrounding atmosphere.
Kaltofen noted that the problem with the Department of Energy’s too-little, too-late interest in Ohio’s pollution crisis is that the Trump administration has also steadily cut back on the resources that would be needed for proper environmental monitoring and testing. The scandal in Pike County erupted at the same time that DOE announced a harebrained scheme to avoid proper disposal costs for its gigantic tanks full of radioactive waste at the government’s Hanford Site in Washington state and two other locations by trying to bury the wastes in concrete.
“People don’t close a school for no reason — it costs them a lot of money,” Katofen said. “People are intuitively aware that they’re not getting the full story.” He added: “Where is the accountability at DOE?”
That’s a great question. Our legal effort seeks a total cleanup, health care and monitoring for the plant’s neighbors, and damages for the victims of a gross environmental injustice. The residents of Pike County deserve that — and they deserve the truth.