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How Fernald Went From Contaminated To Clean

It's been 27 years since the Fernald Feed Materials Production Site closed down. Ten years ago this weekend, the work to replace the contaminated uranium plant with a nature preserve wrapped up.

In northwest Hamilton County, there's a prairie that looks like just about any other countryside: low rolling hills, groves of trees, tall grass, and a smattering of ponds. One bare hill stands apart.

On its west side, there's a line of light green metal sheds, spread about 60 yards apart. Equipment inside monitors leakage from the hill, which isn't a hill at all.  It's an on-site disposal facility, and it holds nearly 3-million cubic yards of low level waste.

The waste is from what used to be here. A uranium processing facility.

From the 1950s to the late 80s, the Department of Energy's Fernald plant produced high-grade uranium metals for nuclear weapons. It's dirty work, and it left behind a mess.

The air, the water, and the soil were all contaminated.

Lisa Crawford lived nearby. The well that provided her drinking water was one of those tainted. She became one of the neighbors who formed Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health, (FRESH.) The group put pressure on the government.

"We began to ask a lot of questions," Crawford says. "And this place wasn't used to having to answer any questions. So, FRESH, we kicked their door in and then we kicked it down."

Fernald closed in 1989, but Crawford and other members of FRESH continued to push. They wanted the site cleaned up.

Credit Bill Rinehart / WVXU
Sue Smiley, Lisa Crawford, Graham Mitchell, Penny Borgman, and Jeff Wagner make plans to commemorate the end of the clean-up.

By 1992, the federal government had hired a contractor and the work was underway. This all happened when protecting groundwater was a new concept. There were a lot of ideas. Some worked, some didn't. Jeff Wagner worked with Westinghouse, which started the cleanup, and then joined Fluor Fernald which finished it.

Wagner says one idea for some of the waste was to turn it into a stable solid: glass.

"It seemed like a great way to do it. (We) did a pilot plan of that and it just didn't work. So we had to go back to the drawing board, again engage regulators plant neighbors, the citizen's advisory board."

They ended up mixing the waste with concrete to stabilize it for removal.

Graham Mitchell worked on the cleanup for the Ohio EPA.

He says the real story is not the technology or the statistics involved in turning the plant into a nature preserve. It's more the cooperation between the different players - the federal government, the state, county, contractors, and the neighbors.

"You know communication and trust is building when you get that bad news very quickly. Even though it's not news you want to get. But when they share bad news with you just like they would good news, then you know that communication is working. And it actually over time builds trust as well."

That trust took a long time to build. Lisa Crawford says it was a struggle at times, but everyone learned something. She says today FRESH and the other players are more than happy to share the lessons with neighbors and contractors at other Superfund sites.

"I talk to people all over the country about Fernald and what happened here. A lot of the other DOE sites. And I just want them to know that it can be done, number one. And number two, you can educate and learn a lot.

"And that you can come and see what we did here," Crawford says.

Some groups do come, like those from the gaseous diffusion plant in Pike County, Ohio.

About 12-thousand people visit a year. There are students on field trips, while others walk the seven miles of trails. Preserve manager Sue Smiley says some are former plant workers, and she can always pick them out.

"If they haven't been here in a long time, they'll drive up and they'll stand in that parking lot and just look around. And we can tell they're trying to get their bearings. It's very hard!"

Smiley says the visual cues, the buildings and silos are gone, replaced by trees and prairie. Those former workers often bring their kids and grandchildren to show them around because they're proud of what was here, and what's here now.

The Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management is hosting an event tomorrow to remember the clean up and to showcase the Preserve. It's from 10 til 2 at the visitors center on Willey Road.

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio ever since.