SCIOTO — Pressure is amplifying locally for the Scioto County Commissioners and the U.S. Department of Energy to address concerns regarding the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon.
Former plant workers of a lawsuit against DOE contractors and Democratic Commissioner candidate John McHenry feel both groups have not done enough to address the issue.
After the closure of Zahn’s Corner Middle School late last December, the suit claims that students in the Scioto Valley and Northwest local school districts, and inmates at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility are at-risk of exposure due to the spread of contamination from the former nuclear industrial site.
“The United States Department of Energy and its contractors, through their criminal acts, negligence, and reckless and intentional misconduct, have created a situation akin to a creeping Chernobyl,” reads the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Columbus last month. “They are responsible for unconscionably poisoning workers and the people, land, air, and water for miles around PORTS causing an increased risk of disease, fatal illnesses and death.”
Approached by plaintiffs identified in the suit, McHenry alleged first on Facebook last week and later in an interview with the Portsmouth Daily Times that the Commissioners had essentially dismissed past attempts from community members to draw light on further contamination that is reportedly spreading into Scioto County.
“They felt stymied by the Commissioners, trying to raise the alarm,” said McHenry of the plaintiffs. “They felt that the Commissioners were taking the side of the people doing the poisoning instead of the people being poisoned.”
Responding to McHenry, Scioto County Commissioner Bryan Davis defined the posts from the Democratic candidate running against Cathy Coleman as “reckless,” and politically motivated.
“This has caused undue fear and worry among a few citizens,” said Davis in a released statement. “It should be interesting to note he didn’t have a comment on this until he was running for office.”
Charles “Chick” Lawson, a Lucasville resident and 15-year security employee at the plant, brought attention to the issue during the Commissioners meeting Nov. 5, 2019. There he discussed findings of the radioactive chemical Americium in air monitors in Otway and Plutonium and Uranium near Zahn’s Corner in 2017 and 2018.
“When you ingest this, it turns into a totally different animal,” said Lawson during the meeting, regarding Plutonium and Americium using data from DOE. “Your skin will stop alpha (emittors), but if you have a cut, a scratch, if your child is on the playground…. there is a latency period but it will cause fatal cancer.”
“He was giving them information, he was telling them here are the facts, here is the data,” said McHenry, adding that Lawson along with Jeff Walburn came to him with this information. “He was trying to raise the alarm that there’s a problem here and it is migrating to Scioto County.”
This address was informed by bad science, says Davis. By confusing air versus soil samples, Davis said Lawson contradicted himself and additionally questioned the factual basis of his claims.
Davis cited evidence from the Ohio Department of Health-DOE 2019 sampling report, which concluded that there was no public health or safety risk.
“There is no radioactive material at the site that is present in quantities that necessitates a regulatory action such as licensing,” reads the report. “There are no radioactive material quantities that require a state request to DOE to take any mitigating actions.”
According to the report, findings of Plutonium and Americium were “less than the minimum detectable activity,” and 1,000 times beneath the regulatory limit for Americium according to Davis.
“Your home smoke detector has more Americium in it than what hit the monitor,” said Davis.
Recently, McHenry commented on remarks made by Commissioner Mike Crabtree at a Nov. 14, 2019 meeting saying it seemed that the Commissioners apologized to DOE and not the plaintiffs. Crabtree began that Nov. 14, 2019 meeting by acknowledging “misinformation” about the plant and the dangers connected to working there.
“We have people who work dangerous jobs and they know that and they go to work every day any way,” said Crabtree during that Commissioners’ session, comparing the dangers of the plant to those that work in law enforcement, construction and fire departments. “One thing that everyone has in common when they work a dangerous job is that they know they have a family, kids that have to eat, and they run the risks.”
McHenry shared last week he believed this meant the Commissioners felt that sickness as a result of working at the plant was an assumed risk by the workers. Surrounding counties of the plant- Pike, Scioto, Lawrence, Vinton and Adams- all had higher rates of cancer incidence rates between 2012 and 2016 than the ODH-reported state average of 461.9 per 100,000 people, which the suit alleges is due to contamination from the plant.
“They need a paycheck, so if they’re going to go out there and they get sick, it’s their fault,” said McHenry, describing his understanding of the Commissioners’ statements. “It’s just the price you pay for it.”
If elected, McHenry wants the county to be a party plaintiff in the suit against DOE and to encourage local school districts and the correctional facility to do the same. Joining the suit is not supported by Davis, who said in his statement that the county’s legal resources are already stretched thin.
Davis stands by the Commissioners’ record throughout the years, saying they have taken a very active and consistent role in the plant’s cleanup, denoting how they have written letters, held petition drives, visited Washington DC, and lobbied DOE and Congress directly.
These efforts have led to the end of the Barter Program, which Davis said caused great uncertainty among the workers as to their job security, and DOE, in its waste acceptance criteria concessions, to remove dangerous waste off-site to Nevada.
Davis said McHenry’s information is essentially incomplete as it only comes from disposal cell opposition parties, confirmed to be Walburn and Lawson, and has to Davis’s knowledge never visited the on-site waste disposal facility.
A former Piketon native, Davis has personal experience with former plant workers who were exposed to contaminants. The Commissioners collectively acknowledge this exposure, he said.
“We support the full compensation to these faithful Cold War Patriots,” said Davis. “To say we have done nothing to further the cleanup or strive to keep our citizens safe is the farthest thing from the truth. It reeks of politics.”
He also joins expressed sentiment in Washington from Ohio congressmen Sen. Sherrod Brown, Sen. Robert Portman, and Rep. Brad Wenstrup who have written letters to DOE Secretary Dan Brouillette to address these concerns in the community.
Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.
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