Scioto Valley School District closes building after discovery of contaminants

By Tom Corrigan -

In what was called an open letter to the students, parents and staff of the Scioto Valley Local School District, district superintendent Todd Burkitt announced the closure of Zahn’s Corner Middle School in Piketon following the discovery of enriched uranium inside the school as well as detection of a substance known as neptunium 237 in the air around the school.

“The top priority the Scioto Valley local school District Board of Education is to ensure the safety and health of our students and staff,” Burkitt wrote in the letter dated Monday. He added the school will remain closed “until the source, extent, level of contamination and potential impacts to public health and the environment can be determined.”

The federal Department of Energy reported the discovery what they called trace amounts of neptunium outside the school in the 2017 Piketon Annual Site Environmental Report (ASER) which came out in January of this year.

After the DOE finding was reported by the Daily Times, the Pike County General Health District called a public forum on the issue for April 27. District officials eventually called for a halt to any and all activities at the defunct Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, the presumed source of the contamination at the middle school.

“It is the health district’s responsibility to continue to investigate the information, members of DOE, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio Department of Health, and the public to attend Saturday’s forum,” Pike County Health Commissioner Matt Brewster said in a press release announcing the forum.

Only DOE and OEPA officials actually appeared at the forum and the OEPA representative repeatedly declined to comment. The form also featured the release of an independent study which allegedly found contamination apparently linked to the plant in several places well outside the borders of the facility.

“It is our belief, based on DOE documentation, that neptunium is on the Portsmouth reservation and has reached the air monitoring station (at the school) as a likely result of activities related to the construction of the waste disposal facility,” Brewster continued, referring to the ongoing construction of a controversial permanent waste disposal site planned as the part of the ongoing demolition at the long-closed uranium enrichment plant.

The disposal facility is intended to store leftover equipment and demolished construction materials from the plant. DOE contends the on-site facility allows the greatest opportunity for economic redevelopment of the plant site. Opponents refer to the disposal facility as a “radioactive waste dump.” Pike County health authorities passed a resolution opposing the waste facility in 2017.

The closure of the school is likely to add fuel to the controversy long surrounding the cleanup of the Piketon plant and especially ongoing construction of the permanent waste disposal site. That plant is the subject of several DOE forums planned over the next two weeks. All meetings are scheduled for 2-7 p.m.

The first is May 14 at the Jackson County Extension Office, 17 Standpipe Rd., Jackson. DOE will be in Scioto County Thursday for a forum in the University Center building of Shawnee State University.

A Pike County session is scheduled for May 21 at the Pike County YMCA 400 Pride Dr., Waverly. A final session is set for May 23 at the Christopher Conference Center, North Plaza Blvd., Chillicothe.

In a press release on the events, DOE stated they will present information on building deactivation, demolition planning, the on-site waste disposal facility, and environmental monitoring, among other topics. Representatives from the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative, Ohio University, the Portsmouth Site Specific Advisory Board, and site contractors will also participate.

The closing of Zahn’s Corner Middle School was a late-breaking and developing story. The Daily Times will provide further information as it develops.

By Tom Corrigan

Reach Tom Corrigan at (740) 370- 0715. © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.

Reach Tom Corrigan at (740) 370- 0715. © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.