Fear & Loathing at the Fernald Superfund Site


What if someone contaminated the largest aquifer east of the Mississippi River with radium-226 and no one cared? Or failed to do anything about it?

Well, guess what? It happened. In 2005, at the Fernald Superfund Site. I was there, as a senior environmental scientist. I subsequently took the United States government to court over the cover up—along with Fluor, the contractor of record at Fernald—where they both proceeded to lie, play a shell game with the facts and ultimately won the case, leaving me to this thankless task of warning an indifferent public about an impending environmental disaster.

Mostly what I get for my efforts are shrugs.

I can assure you the radium is still there, and migrating downward towards the Great Miami Aquifer. No one with Fluor or the government has ever argued otherwise. Fluor simply arranged for a company flunky to write up a fresh modeling report, setting a new legal limit for radium-226 in the environment. The EPA then jumped onboard and provided the DOE with a waiver to exceed the Clean Water Act. It wasn’t really a waiver. By law, the DOE was still obligated to comply but they began referring to the science involved as ‘risk based standards’ and falsifying their reports and suddenly their sins sounded like a softball.

I assume you’ve already seen this movie. The government was going to shuffle that deck of cards until they got the hand that they wanted.

The sum effect? The legal limit for groundwater contamination is now presumably 3200 years. Thus, if the public is endangered for say, only 3000 years, it’s no longer a threat. A kid in second grade science class would be scratching his head over that one but the judge in the case bought the government’s argument. The Great Miami Aquifer will be contaminated with radium-226 until at least the year 5000 as the result and the public got screwed in the bargain.

Make no mistake. This is scary stuff. The Great Miami Aquifer runs directly beneath the Fernald site and supplies drinking water to half the Eastern Seaboard. The radium is there. I saw Fluor bury it, and radium-226 is three million times more radioactive than uranium-238. That means a tiny fraction of a gram is more deadly than a ton of yellowcake. And Fluor was literally dumping truckloads of radium-226 contaminated soil into the ground.

How is this not a problem? You’ll have to ask Fluor and the United States government.

For the record, I have worked in the nuclear energy industry for over thirty years now, some fifteen years of it before my tenure at Fernald. Most of that was spent working as a nuclear gypsy—a highly paid hired gun who traveled from plant to plant, putting out fires—and fires flare up quite a lot in the nuclear energy business. We nuclear gypsies were a tightknit group, hanging out together in the bars of dumpy, backwater towns and swapping stories about things that no one in the general community was supposed to hear.

Having lived out of motels and short term rentals for far too long, I was delighted when the folks at the Fernald Superfund Site approved my application. It was projected to be roughly a ten year position, which meant I could settle down, buy a house and maybe even start a family. What’s more, I would now be engaged in cleaning up a messy industry, rather than engaged in adding to the mess it created.

I arrived at Fernald in 1996, lunch pail in hand, ready to save the world from a looming environmental catastrophe and, by 2005, figured our team had pretty much accomplished that goal. Nearly every part of that former uranium enrichment facility had been torn down without a single catastrophic incident. There had been some close calls, to be sure, some real edge of your seat stuff. Some of it would even have to be characterized as idiotic and the fodder for comedy, but we had gotten the job done.

Only four silos remained to be torn down. The wrecking ball was ready to swing. The problem was, those silos had been sealed shut decades earlier, chock full of radium-226, and no one knew for sure how much radium remained inside.

One thing was for certain. No one, from the top brass at Fluor on up to the government oversight agencies and back down the lowliest peon wanted their fingerprints on the ‘go for it’ memo. Months went by with everyone basically involved a game of high stakes chicken.

Fast forward through all the bureaucratic BS, the order finally came down. The day arrived. The heavy equipment showed up and the silos were about to become history.

As the lead scientist in Environmental Monitoring, I had installed sensors outward from the silos in every direction, including along a nearby country road, their sole purpose being to measure what some folks at Fernald playfully called silo shine; i.e., radiation in a public place. The radiation emitted by silos 1 and 2 was so strong that earthen berms had been piled up around them long ago for additional protection. Unfortunately, before anyone could take a proper whack at these silos with a wrecking ball, those earthen berms had to come down.

I had expressed my abundant concerns regarding this task. Those old silos had been standing there with this additional support for nearly 20 years. Who knew what state their concrete walls were in now? And if they did collapse once the earthen berms had been removed, what hope would we have of containing the resulting radiation fallout?

Sitting in my bunker that day, monitoring things in real time, it did not take long for my worst fears to be realized. The minute the wrecking ball started swinging, the structures essentially collapsed under their own weight. I watched in horror as workers scattered for cover. Two large piles of rubble were all that remained.

Looking back at my computer screen, I watched with further horror as radiation readings spiked on my sensors. A cloud of radioactive gas and dust was drifting across the land. I swiftly calculated all the possible wind speed variables and came up with an estimate that relieved my most immediate concerns. The radiation from this minor disaster—in terms of how it would affect the surrounding populace—appeared to be well below the legal limits.

I went home that day still believing in my most bedrock convictions. Our decade long effort to remove this environmental menace had been completed without once threatening the public safety.

The next morning started off like any other: coffee, check the status of my monitors, catch up on my emails and start digging through a mountain of overnight data. It wasn’t until around midmorning that I received my first indication of a potential problem. The radioactive gas concentrations around the silos were showing a significant increase. Initially, I wrote this spike off to a radioactive shipment being trucked across the Fernald site. It was not an uncommon occurrence, but a passing truck would only elevate the monitor’s readings for a short period of time. As I watched, the readings continued to elevate. Clearly this wasn’t a shipment. Nor was it an instrument malfunction. All my monitors had crept up in unison.

According to my monitors, radon-220 gas, radium-226’s daughter product, was all over the site. So what was the source? I was seeing a sustained rise in radon concentrations across the entire project. Checking the wind directions, I concluded that it could only be coming from the silos.

I had been assured over and over again by my superiors that all the radium-bearing waste had been safely removed from the silos prior to demolition. That cloud of radioactive dust from the previous day was long gone. Thus, we should have been talking about nothing more than some residual exposure. Somebody was lying.

By lunchtime, I had radiation alarms going off from every one of my sensors around Fernald. The response procedure was straight forward. I should know. I had written it.

First action for an alarm: verify. There could be many reasons for a false one—a lightning strike, an electrical spike, a truck hitting the monitor and so on—but I had been verifying the alarms all morning and knew this was no anomaly.

Second action was to notify the Communications Center. I reached for the phone but saw on my caller ID that the Communications Center was already ringing through to me.

“Environmental Monitoring,” I answered.

“This is the Communications Center. We’re getting alarms at the silos project. Can you verify?”

“Yes. I’m also getting alarms. Can you verify?”

“Yes, I can verify.”

“Will you notify the proper authorities at the silos project?”

“Yes.”

“May we acknowledge alarms?”

“Yes,” I replied.

I hung up and immediately called over to the health physicist on shift that day, and the man responsible for overall radiation safety at the silos project; James Barber, a short, stocky, gruff middle aged man with a ponytail, balding hair and a messy divorce on his hands. He had become a team leader by virtue of being a Certified Health Physicist, or CHP, and being certified in this way was no easy task. You had to have a degree and extensive experience in the industry just to take the exam. From a friend, I knew he had taken it three times before passing, which suggested he was determined, if not particularly bright. He was definitely ‘old school’ in the nuclear industry, meaning he had paid his dues out in the field. Plus, being a CHP came with a morals clause, so I had been inclined to give James the benefit of the doubt when he told me some months earlier that all the raw waste had been removed long ago from the silos and that very little contamination could be expected to go airborne in the resulting dust cloud. Now it seemed clear that he had been bullshitting me, so I came at our latest phone call with a decidedly cynical point of view.

“This is Environmental Monitoring,” I announced once James had answered. “We are experiencing real-time radiation alarms in your area. Are you experiencing coincident alarms?”

“Unplug the monitors and don’t call back,” he said and hung up.

Holy Jesus, I thought. We all knew what that meant. It was industry code for ‘we aren’t going to record this event’ and that was a major problem for me. It was my job to collect and analyze data throughout the project, turn this data into daily environmental reports, which were then rolled into weekly and ultimately annual reports. The real-time monitoring network was automatically logging elevated results into a database as we spoke. The confirmatory air sample filters could not be made to disappear. There were chain-of-custody issues here, too, and procedural violations. To sweep things under the rug, quite literally, meant falsifying environmental and compliance reports, and doing things like that meant going to jail. Plus, in a heavily regulated industry like nuclear, where the paper-trails often overlap, once you start cooking the books, it becomes a full time job just covering your ass.

Given all these facts, I sat there, baffled by the James’ instructions. These monitors were federally mandated pollution control devices. Unplugging them alone would be equivalent to falsifying data. And—when all was said and done—we had only experienced a near miss, not the end of the world. We could fix this problem. Why were we cutting our own throats? All we had to do was ‘self-disclose’ the event and implement corrective procedures to ensure it would never happen again.

Over the next few days, I placed my complaints in front of my departmental manager, the silos project manager, the Environmental Compliance Department and eventually senior management but the instructions came back the same each time. Unplug the monitors. Period. Environmental Compliance had actually threatened to bulldoze my monitors if I failed to cooperate.

This idea of falsifying reports was basic Sunday school lesson stuff and had my stomach churning. Lie and it comes back to haunt you. And once you start fibbing, it never ends. This issue wasn’t going to die down of its own accord. The minute someone had a look at our paperwork and realized it contradicted the monitoring data from the field, the shit would hit the fan. Data from airborne alarms would confirm that the leftover by-product waste in the silos was continuing to be released as airborne contamination, long after the demolition had been completed. We had a real world problem about which you could not stick your head in the sand. Large quantities of uncontrolled, highly radioactive waste were being exposed to the atmosphere. Worse still, fire hoses had been employed to suppress the airborne contamination levels, which could only serve to drive the radium contamination deeper underground.

Over the next few days, I watched as my long-lived particulate monitoring network and my real-time gas monitoring network plotted a synchronized plume from the silos project directly to our onsite disposal area. Curious, I jumped in my pickup and proceeded to the silos, where I found a line of dump trucks in the process of being loaded. I followed the trucks from there to the onsite disposal facility, shocked to see them dumping the contaminated soil into a hole in the ground. Well, there was a major problem. Radium-bearing by-product waste was ‘categorically’ excluded from onsite burial.

I complained again and once again was told to stand down by my superiors. I left work that day, for the first time not feeling proud of what I had done. I tossed and turned and woke up in the middle of the night with a sense of foreboding. Something had to be done. The twin radioactive plumes to the onsite disposal facility were compelling evidence of illegal dumping. Determined now to go higher up and blow the whistle, I went to download the data from my computer the next day at work, only to discover the database had been scrubbed clean of all results above the legal limits.

There had been plenty of contaminated results in the database the previous day. Now they were gone.

In a full state of paranoia at this point, I continued my covert investigations into the cover up, even as I played cool and went about dashing off my standard daily environmental reports.

Then, a few days later, I stumbled across a memo that was obviously not meant for my eyes.

Apparently my superiors, understanding full well the danger posed by radium contamination, had commissioned one of my fellow scientists to pen that new modeling report, in effect rewriting the legal limits of radium in the environment. Now, we were below the legal limits and there was no need to test for it. All of our problems had miraculously disappeared. It was if the illegal dumping had never occurred.

Of course, any dummy would know otherwise. If radium was so harmless to the environment, why did we have monitors in place to test for it? And why had said alarms been going off during the demolition of the silos? And why had my superiors been engaged in a secret effort to bury all that contaminated soil?

Roughly a year later, I got word that a new subcontractor had been brought in take over Environmental Monitoring. This was not an uncommon practice in the nuclear industry. You were laid off by the outgoing company and immediately rehired by the new one. The entire staff changed hats and went on working.

When the layoff notices came through, our group as a whole made our way over to an off-site human resources office. Each of us interviewed for our old jobs with the replacement company. Each of us was rehired; except for me.

Nice trick. Having been laid-off as part of a group, it was virtually impossible for me to claim it had been done out of retaliation.

The human resources person gave me the usual BS. There would be ongoing reductions in the force as the cleanup project came to a close. Etc., etc.

I was guided over to line one, where I turned in my checklist. In line two, I was walked through the company termination package. In line three, I applied for unemployment.

It was very professional, and effectively ended my nuclear energy career in United States.

I now work at a nuclear power plant in Canada. I still lie awake at night, worrying about that radium-226 in the ground. How long will it take before it reaches the Great Miami Aquifer? When will the cancer cases spike, their occurrences directly mapping the shape of the aquifer? How many people will die before the public outcry blows the lid off this environmental disaster?

I have tried for the past seven years to raise the alarm, but nobody’s listening.

Excerpted from an upcoming book of the same name.

 

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If you love crime novels set along the coast of Southern California, you’ll love South on Pacific Coast Highway. Think Chandler and Hammett and the great noir films from the thirties and forties. Sultry dames and unsolved murders, bad cops and even badder criminals. A crisp but measured pace, with the desert wind for a backdrop…
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