The tenor of citizens comments at Tuesday’s public hearing on the Parks Township nuclear waste dump cleanup was unmistakeable.
Perry Roberts of Gilpin may have expressed it best: “We need to get it done this time, and we need to get it done right,” Roberts told Army Corps of Engineers officials.
About 150 people attended the hearing conducted by the Corps of Engineers unit out of Pittsburgh in the township fire hall.
It attracted coverage from a number of media outlets, including a reporter and cameraman from Al Jazeera, the TV network headquartered in the Middle East.
The Corps has the responsibility for overseeing the cleanup, whose cost has ballooned from a projected $44 million to $412 million.
That happened after excavation on the project began in 2011 and then came to a screeching halt when the Corps unearthed greater-than-expected quantities of complex nuclear material.
Corps officials told the crowd that their input is important to the resumption of the project and the Corps is required to consider their testimony and answer questions raised.
“Today, the power is not with us, the power is with you,” said Col. Bernie Lindstrom, commander of the Corps in Pittsburgh.
In order to cover the increased cleanup costs, the Corps has to get approval for a change to the original “record of decision” or ROD. It’s that document that enabled the initial work on the waste dump, which came to about $62 million.
Michael Helbling, the Corps’ project manager, said that’s why public comment and support are important.
“You can have the best remedy in the world, but if the public doesn’t accept it, it is very hard to implement,” Helbling said.
To that end, Helbling announced that the 30-day public comment period, which was set to end Feb. 5 has been extended. He said that there have been at least two requests made to continue the public period and the Corps has granted them.
He said the Corps will continue to accept comments for an additional 60 days and end April 4.
A public meeting will follow that deadline at the beginning of April to update area residents about the project and answer questions, Helbling said. Once public comment ends and any pertinent suggestions or input from the public is added to the ROD amendment, it will be sent up the chain of command for approval.
He projected that would come in July and, if approved, the Corps would solicit requests for proposals from contractors immediately.
Hiring a contractor should be completed by January 2016, followed by design work and the work on the nuclear waste dump would get underway in 2017.
In brief, the plan is to excavate the dangerous radioactive waste and safely transport it to a landfill specifically designed to accept it.
At least one person thinks it’s a bad idea.
“My idea for a future that is healthy is leave well enough alone,” said John Voyten of the township’s Kiskimere section, close to the waste dump.
While many residents fear the health effects from letting the nuclear waste stay where it is, Voyten said he has lived there for 67 years and the only problem he has is “growing hair.”
But Patty Ameno of Hyde Park, the leading activist in pushing for the cleanup, said, “The consequences of leaving it there are far more dangerous than digging it up.”
Ameno, in her testimony, listed eight points that the amendment should address. Among them are moving the project ahead without delay, the health and safety of the residents be given the highest priority equal to national security concerns, that the abandoned coal mine below the waste dump be investigated and tested and that a “no-fracking zone” be set up to make sure that seismic activity from Marcellus shale drilling does not impact the waste dump.
“I’ve spoken to both the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and they both agreed there should be a no-fracking zone,” Ameno said.
Neill Andritz, who owns a canoe/kayak sales and rental business along River Road in Parks Township, said the Corps has to do something about making it easier for the trucks that haul materials to and from the site to turn onto River Road from the project site.
“A radioactive materials truck blocking the passing lane of a two-lane road is a dangerous situation,” Andritz said.
Chuck Pascal of Leechburg said the next cleanup should be preceded by an emphasis on training for first responders on how to do deal with an accident or some event involving the nuclear waste.
He said that security concerns should not prevent the Corps from alerting local officials when the nuclear and/or chemical waste materials are moving through their towns.
Tom Haley of Allegheny Township emphasized that the Corps use all resources to learn about what materials were produced and processed at the former NUMEC and Atlantic Richfield operations that produced the waste.
Haley, who has been involved with the waste dump issue since 2003, said he worked as a project manager at the NUMEC plant for 11 years and knows what was produced there.
He said he prepared an extensive report on those materials, but nobody from the Corps has looked at it.
“It describes everything you need to know about what was processed at NUMEC,” Haley said.
He used the aborted cleanup as an example of why more knowledge is needed. Originally, the estimate of the radioactive waste dumped at the site was 26.6 kilograms.
But Haley said there was more than that amount just in the one-half of a disposal trench that was excavated before the project was halted.
Peter Davin of Pittsburgh seemed to echo Haley’s concerns. Davin said he is a technical attorney who has worked on such cleanup projects for 30 years and now is involved in a major one in California.
He suggested to the Corps officials, as a part of their request for proposals on the cleanup, that they supply information about the site’s contents to the contractors bidding on it so each can supply a risk assessment-risk management plan on how they will handle things if something goes wrong.
Helbling said that was done the first time.
Making public what the Corps knows to be in the waste dump is something that residents have asked for, unsuccessfully, in the past.
“Our policy is not to talk about the stuff that we think is in there, and we do not talk about the material we excavate,” Helbling said. “And that is not going to change.”
This article was written by Tom Yerace from The Valley News-Dispatch, Tarentum, Pa. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.