Top health expert warns of drinking-water risks in Piketon radiation case


One thing that I’ve found to be a constant in more than 25 years of working cases around pollution from radiation: A good outside expert will often tell citizens the things that government or big business simply can’t or won’t.

In most of my major radiation cases against the world’s largest oil companies, we’ve conducted our own testing to convincingly show that giant firms like Chevron and Exxon-Mobil were — with extreme negligence — shipping or simply dumping pipes from oilfield production that were contaminated with radioactive debris, or “scale,” without telling workers or neighbors about the extreme risks. Neither Big Business nor our frequently conflicted state and federal regulators are much inclined to reveal the ugly truth.

But the radioactive pollution and cover-up in Pike County, Ohio — where I’m the lead counsel in a class-action lawsuit representing a community where contamination from a nearby plant has already forced a contaminated middle school to shut down — is in a completely different and arguably scarier category. The source of the uranium and other poisonous substances found in the air and on school property — the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant near Piketon, Ohio, which made material for nuclear bombs throughout the Cold War — is owned by the federal government. Simply put, the feds aren’t working very hard to investigate themselves.

Indeed, the crisis in Pike County might never have been exposed had local residents — concerned about illnesses in the neighborhood surrounding the plant, including what some believe is a childhood cancer cluster — not brought in an outside expert from Northern Arizona University, whose tests discovered enriched radioactive materials at the Zahn’s Corner Middle School.

It was only after this surprising revelation that the federal Department of Energy (DOE) revealed its own air tests in 2017 had found a dangerous radioactive substance — neptunium-237 — in the air near the plant and the now-shuttered middle school. Since them, the federal agency — under the direction of Energy Secretary and former Texas governor Rick Perry, appointed by President Donald Trump — has promised local officials and residents a comprehensive investigation into radioactivity in Pike County, but what’s emerged so far looks more like a whitewash.

Earlier this month, Northern Arizona University professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry Michael Ketterer — the expert who did the earlier testing at the middle school — returned to Pike County with a dire warning. He said that, based on his testing so far, he believes that neptunium has contaminated the Little Beaver Creek that runs near the plant. And that creek feeds the Scioto River, the main source of public drinking water for that corner of southern Ohio.

The results of the contamination, Ketterer warned those who came out to see him speak at Piketon’s high school, could be catastrophic.

The biochemistry expert parried back at the DOE’s claims that the radioactive material discovered at the school and elsewhere in and around Piketon were not at dangerous levels and could be the result of worldwide nuclear fallout and not necessarily because of activity at the Portsmouth plant, where construction has been taking place for an onsite disposal facility. He noted that the DOE’s own report conceded that the material found in the school and in and around Piketon — uranium, neptunium, and plutonium — are consistent not with fallout but with the kind of work that was done at the plant for decades.

“The contaminants are there, that is the point,” Ketterer said, noting that any levels inside a school are concerning and that the most important thing is that more testing be done and that it be performed by an independent source, not the federal or even the state government.

I couldn’t agree more. Our legal team has its own experts — people who’ve tested for radiation in a number of high-profile cases over the years — who are checking out the air, soil and water supply in Pike County, both to inform our lawsuit against these contractors and to let the people of southern Ohio know about the level of risk.

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. Given how high the stakes are, it’s hardly surprising that that the feds are trying to muddy the waters on the level of contamination and where it came from.

Pike County already has the second-highest rate of cancer in all of Ohio, and at least six people who went to the Zahn’s Corner Middle School have contracted meningiomas, a high rate that would be impossible without a major pollution source nearby. These new comments by Northern Arizona professor Ketterer regarding contamination of major drinking water supplies shows the urgency of identifying the sources and the extent of this pollution and cleaning up Pike County as soon as possible. The good news is that southern Ohio finally has people who will fight for their region — even when the federal government will not.

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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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