Despite Energy Department Outreach, Radiation Fears Remain In Piketon

May 24, 2019
Originally published on May 23, 2019 9:46 am

In Waverly, a YMCA gym is lined with poster boards set up on easels. Glen Broughton stands in the middle, looking over a huge three-dimensional map of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

“Our camper sets right here, and our house is just right off this lower corner,” he says, craning his neck toward one edge.

As fears of contamination from the former uranium enrichment plant grow, federal officials are trying to reassure their neighbors. The U.S. Department of Energy is hosting open houses like this one throughout Pike County—the final event is Thursday afternoon in Chillicothe.

The events give residents like Broughton the chance to ask questions, and for energy officials to explain the process of dismantling the plant safely. Johnny Reising tells visitors about the dump site, where much of material from the demolished buildings will be held.

“This is a blow up basically of this,” he says, pulling out a map of the waste site, “which now has the engineering design laid on top of it. This on-site disposal facility overall is about 300 acres in size.”

Reising explains the space is split into 12 distinct cells, and he indicates piping to carry waste water away for treatment before it hits the aquifer. He then pulls out a cross section of the materials they’re placing above and below the rubble to keep it contained.

“Your liner system with your leak detection, your leachate collection system, the waste material and then the 10-foot cover on top of it,” Reising says, working from bottom to top. “So all of that is all enveloped in here, and it’s all wrapped around like a burrito, so it’s all protective—so the ends aren’t open.”

Reising and other officials describe a laundry list of overlapping safety efforts to contain, treat and test the byproducts of their work. But the plant's neighbors remain skeptical.

In recent weeks, school officials closed down Zahn's Corner Middle School after tests detected enriched uranium on the campus. The Energy Department then disclosed that in the last two years, air monitoring stations nearby detected trace amounts of two different radioactive isotopes.

Crystal Glass attended that middle school and grew up near the plant. She developed a benign tumor in her breast at 14.

“And then 20 years later, I got a very rare cancer; it’s called a Bartholin’s adenocarcinoma,” Glass says. “I was the youngest patient at Ohio State, the Cleveland Clinic, and MD Anderson.”

With her daughter Ruby hugging her leg, Glass explains that cancer typically affects women in their mid-60s. She was in her mid-30s.

About a month ago, Glass posted on Facebook asking others in Pike County who they knew who had developed cancer. More than 100 chimed in with stories about their parents, children or themselves. Many of them said nothing in their family history put them at risk for contracting their disease.

“There are tons of people with cancer and it’s just—you just can’t go door to door anywhere and everybody knows somebody or they have cancer in that household,” Glass says.

Pike County has the second-highest cancer rate in Ohio, but it’s only about 10 percent higher than the statewide rate. There are numerous anecdotal reports of rare cancers, but health officials have yet to conduct a targeted study of the area. Pike County’s health director wants to begin one soon.

Glass is healthy now, but she has to check in with a doctor every three months. And her cancer has altered what she had planned for her family.

“I really wanted another child, and I cannot have any more children,” she says. “I think at this point we were just focusing on surviving, and taking care of her, and then just not knowing really what the future holds.”

Glass says after she completes a nurse practitioner program early next year, she wants to move—probably back to Alabama. Her sister Tossie Seif is even more blunt.

“I feel like within a 50-mile radius needs to be just evacuated,” she says. “Everybody needs to go, because there’s so much cancer here.”

As it wraps up its series of open houses, the Energy Department is paying for additional testing at the middle school, but the department and local officials have had trouble settling on an independent testing firm.

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