What’s In The Water? Local 12 Investigates Fernald
HAMILTON COUNTY, Ohio (WKRC) - A Local 12 investigation uncovered hundreds of pounds of radioactive uranium that are released every year in to a river that runs through Hamilton County. The releases are happening near Fernald, the site of a former uranium processing facility that once supplied cores for America's nuclear arsenal.
The uranium discharges are legal and the government insists they're safe but at least once scientist worried about what's in the water.
The Fernald Preserve appears to be a perfect picture of how to clean up a high-level radioactive site. Wetlands, prairies and woods have replaced one of the worst Superfund sites in the country.
"It looks nice. It's lipstick on a pig," said Tony Tetsuwari ,a former senior environmental scientist at Fernald who worked on the $4.4 billion cleanup of the former Fernald Feed Materials Production Facility. Since 2006, Tetsuwari has claimed the threat of radiation remains at the Fernald Nature Preserve, which is run by the U.S. Department of Energy and Ohio EPA.
The primary danger lurks just below the surface. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), a 100-acre plume of uranium and other radioactive elements remains in the groundwater.
Bill Hertel, the site manager at Fernald, works for Navarro. Navarro is a contractor hired by the U.S. Department of Energy explained, "This plume is like an ink stain on your shirt. We've pumped 40 some billion gallons of water out of this aquifer, so we've washed that shirt a bunch of times."
Hertel says the uranium in the groundwater won't be cleaned to safe drinking water standards until at least 2036.
FILTRATION AND BYPASS
"This is where we treat for the uranium with filtration," Hertel explained as he guided us through the Water Treatment and Filtration plant, the heart of the on-going cleanup of the uranium plume in the Great Miami Aquifer.
23 wells pump water from the aquifer to the plant for filtration.
"This is what filters out the uranium,” Hertel explained, showing us the plastic like beads that attract the radioactive uranium.
“It's the ion exchange resin. It's little tiny beads," Hertel continued.
But most of the time, the beads aren’t attracting anything, because the entire system is being bypassed.
In 2017, the Department of Energy confirms the groundwater was filtered only on 13 days. The reason? When uranium in the groundwater is less than 30 parts per billion, that's the EPA safe drinking water standard, Fernald bypasses the filters. So, the water with uranium, which Hertel concedes is radioactive, is pumped out to the Great Miami River.
TONS OF URANIUM
Last year, Hertel confirms that a little more than 500 pounds of radioactive uranium flowed in to the river and, according to data from the DOE, 3.3 tons of uranium has been dumped into the Great Miami River since 2007, the year Fernald was officially cleaned up.
"The uranium we're discharging in to the river is dissolved in to water," Hertel told us, insisting that uranium releases are safe.
According to Hertel, the uranium discharges mix with background levels in the river and pose less than a 1-in-a-billion cancer risk. When asked if that could be a significant risk to anyone Hertel replied, "No, it's not. Based on the calculations that were done and approved by EPA."
The EPA agrees, saying its cancer risk models, which are reviewed at Fernald every 5 years, are sound. "The data supports the position we've taken in regard to continuing monitoring."
Still, real cancer rates near Fernald and the Great Miami River are not being studied.
IT’S A COST THING
The water treatment plant at Fernald is being rebuilt. New filters are being installed. But it will function like the old one, with water bypassing the filter when the uranium isn't high enough to trigger treatment. When asked why all of it isn't filtered, Hertel replied, "It's a cost thing."
According to DOE, the operational and maintenance cost for the water treatment facility from October 2016 through September 2017 was $2,865,623.
While the uranium flows to the Great Miami, the old pipes that once carried the groundwater at Fernald are stacked and bagged outside of the water treatment plant, now classified as low-level radioactive waste, while the uranium in the water the pipes once carried continues flowing to the river.
Hertel and DOE insist their data shows the Great Miami River is safe to swim in or even drink.
Meanwhile, that former senior environmental scientist at Fernald, Tetsuwari, continued to worry.
While the Superfund site was deemed cleaned up, Tetsuwari remained unconvinced. When asked for his response to the notion that the site was cleaned, his response was simply, "Not so fast."
EDITOR NOTE: While investigating the radioactive issues at Fernald, Tony Tetsuwari, the former scientist who had concerns about Fernald, suffered a heart attack and died on January 10, 2018. He was 62 years old.