Radiation fears rock southern Ohio: ‘If you have half a thyroid, you’re doing good’


First came the shock and the anger that the federal government had known about radioactive pollution at a middle school attended by their children and told no one for two years. But now the residents of Pike County, Ohio, are beginning to take stock of the possible impact that contamination from the government’s Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant has had on the health of their community, and they are alarmed and frightened.

An investigative report that appeared Sunday in a major Ohio newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, described a county gripped by fear as residents compare notes about relatives who died far too young, often from rare forms of cancer — and who attended the Zahn’s Corner Middle School in Piketon, Ohio, not far from the plant.

“If you have half a thyroid here, you’re doing good,” said Ramona Davis-Lee of Waverly told Dispatch reporter Jessica Wehrman. Davis-Lee was only being slightly sarcastic as residents detailed the medical evidence that have caused many residents of this southern Ohio community of 28,000 people to wonder whether there is a cancer cluster near the plant that processed the materials for atomic bombs during the Cold War.

In May, local officials abruptly closed the 500-student middle school – with plans to keep it closed when school starts up again in the fall — after learning that the U.S. Department of Energy had found the highly dangerous radioactive substance neptunium-237 near the school and after new independent testing discovered enriched uranium inside the building.

The contamination — apparently the result of cleanup and shutdown work that has been going on at the Portsmouth plant since the start of the century — is one of the most egregious pollution cases I’ve seen in roughly three decades as an environmental lawyer.

A team of top attorneys — 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. We are demanding a total cleanup, health care and monitoring for the plant’s neighbors, and damages for the victims of gross negligence that has terrorized this community.

To read some of the individual stories that were published this weekend in the Dispatch is beyond heartbreaking. The article tells of Wayne Smith, a school board member in the Scioto Valley district who began chronicling childhood cancer cases after his own daughter died about a week before her 16th birthday of rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the soft tissue. According to Smith, another alumnus of the Zahn’s Corner Middle School was so weak from her cancer that she had to be carried across the stage for her high school graduation; she, too, eventually died.

But beyond the grim anecdotes, the Dispatch’s reporting unearthed more evidence of a serious health problem in Pike County.

  • In a state where both environmental factors and lifestyle has elevated health risks, Pike County’s cancer rate in 2019 was the second-highest in Ohio, according to the Ohio Cancer Incidence Surveillance System at the Ohio Department of Health.
  • Roughly 600 people who live near the Portsmouth plant have either filled out an online cancer-cluster study form or have been identified by community groups as individuals with cancer or other major health concerns.
  • Six people who went to the Zahn’s Corner Middle School have contracted meningiomas — a condition that the American Society of Clinical Oncology says is so rare that only 32,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with these tumors each year.
  • Other outside investigators are now reporting that tests on deer killed by cars showed uranium isotopes in the livers of the deer as well as traces of uranium found in milk and egg samples from area farms.

But even those grim statistics don’t fully reveal the heartache experienced by local residents like Davis-Lee. She grew up less than a mile from the Portsmouth plant and had a craniotomy in 2012 to remove a benign brain tumor from her skull. Her mother, who — like many Pike County residents – actually worked in the plant — has suffered from even more serious health problems, including an ocular melanoma that metastasized and caused her death.

“Zahn’s Corner really set it off,” Davis-Lee told the Columbus newspaper. “The fear of what’s happening — is my child going to die from cancer? Is my child going to have some illness? Is it true they’re covering this up? Is it true they’re not doing the cleanup properly? What else do we not know?”

Indeed, as troubling as the incidental reports of serious health problems are, the other malady that’s plaguing Pike County is the growing cloud of uncertainty and anxiety emanating from the closed nuclear plant. It screams out for more investigation, and my legal team has investigators in the community doing exactly that. Getting real information is the next step toward getting the people of southern Ohio what they really need, and that is justice.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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