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Decades after the Cold War, residents near a uranium enrichment plant fight for benefits

A woman dressed in black sits behind the steering wheel of a car. She's driving through the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Vina Colley, who once worked as an electrician at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, drives around the site. She was exposed to toxic and radioactive materials there, and has been battling illnesses ever since.

Gina Doyle has lived in Piketon all her life. She keeps a running list of the people she knows who have battled cancer: the nurses she used to work with at Pleasant Hill Nursing Home, her neighbor across the street, a cousin, an aunt, a friend’s mother.

Some have died, others recovered, and many — like a local two-year-old — are still battling the disease.

“I could go on and on and on with who I know who I'm praying for right now,” she said. “There's a lot. It’s overwhelming at times.”

Like the rest of southeast Ohio, cancer rates in Pike County are among the highest in the state.

The region has a lot of poverty. People there are more likely to smoke and be obese — both other cancer risk factors.

But Doyle attributes the high cancer rates to the once booming cornerstone of the community, now a relic of the Cold War: the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

Piketon’s sick workers

The Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion plant in Piketon enriched uranium during the 1950s and 60s for the nation’s nuclear weapons program, and in the decades following for commercial nuclear reactors.

Many of the people who worked there were exposed to toxic and radioactive chemicals.

“I feel violated. They said I would get more radiation by getting on the plane than working out here.”
Vina Colley, former plant worker

“When I got hired here, I was a completely healthy worker,” said Vina Colley, an electrician at the plant. “But after working here even three years, I started breaking out in rashes and I was getting sick.”

She’s battled health problems ever since: beryllium disease, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, neuropathy and heart failure.

She blames it all on her exposure at the plant.

“I feel violated,” she said. “They knew it. They didn't tell me. They said I would get more radiation by getting on the plane than working out here.”

After years of making her case, Colley has received hundreds of thousands of dollars for lost wages and medical care.

The Department of Energy didn’t comment on her case specifically, but it compensates workers like her, who have diseases that could have been caused by exposure, through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act and the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

But the federal government does not compensate people who live in the area immediately surrounding the plant — even though many locals believe they were exposed too.

Did the plant contaminate the surrounding area?

At a creek just just down the road from the plant, Michael Ketterer bends down to scoop up samples of water and sediment.

A man in a gray jacket kneels on the leaf-covered ground to write in a notebook. A bottle of water and duck tape sit on the ground beside him.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Michael Ketterer, a chemist and professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University, takes samples of water, sediment and plant material to test for the presence of enriched uranium and other radionuclides.

“I want to measure the concentrations and isotope compositions of uranium, neptunium, plutonium and technetium-99,” he explained.

Ketterer is a chemist and professor emeritus with Northern Arizona University. He studies environmental radioactivity at nuclear sites all over the country, and started taking samples here back in 2018.

He’s found evidence of enriched uranium — which the plant produced — in water, air monitors and homes within a 10- to 15-mile radius of it.

“There's clear evidence of contamination from the plant there,” he said to a roomful of concerned citizens in early March.

In response to concerns like these, the Department of Energy consulted with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and released its own report last month.

It also found evidence of the radionuclides Ketterer reported on, but says they’re in such low concentrations that they don’t pose a health risk.

“For the various uranium radionuclides, the radiological concentrations were within background concentration ranges of radionuclides found in Ohio and across the globe,” the report read. “For the environmental samples with transuranic radionuclides detected above screening values and above background levels, the measured concentrations resulted in estimated radiological doses that are more than 30,000 times lower than doses that have been observed to cause adverse health effects in human studies.”

Current legislation

Right now, a bipartisan bill that passed the senate would, among other things, give people who live around the country’s two other gaseous diffusion plants — in Oak Ridge, TN and Paducah, KY — lump sum payments of $50,000.

But Piketon is left out of the bill.

“That's two out of three gaseous diffusion plants,” Ketterer said. “Why the hell not three out of three?”

It’s unclear exactly why Piketon wasn’t included.

Republican congressman Brad Wenstrup, who represents the area, says he’s concerned by the bill precisely because there’s no clear criteria for inclusion.

“Previously, this benefit only applied to areas contaminated by atmospheric weapons testing,” his office said in a statement. “Rep. Wenstrup is concerned by this approach and will work with House leadership to fix these issues if the bill moves forward.”

In the meantime, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has pledged to work to include affected Pike and Scioto County residents in the legislation. Sen. J.D. Vance did not respond to a request for comment.

The bill faces an uncertain future in the House. And even if it does become law, $50,000 isn’t a lot of money in the face of large medical bills.

But many locals want to be included anyway.

It’s not just about the money, said Gina Doyle.

“It acknowledges that we're here, we're suffering, and you're the reason.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.