What’s In The Air? Local 12 Investigates Fernald
ROSS TOWNSHIP, Ohio (WKRC) - Eleven years after the former Fernald Uranium Processing Center was officially cleaned up, the U.S. Department of Energy concedes radioactivity remains a threat.
For ten years, Tony Tetsuwari was a senior environmental scientist at Fernald. Tetsuwari approved environmental reports but said he would not sign any report that stated Fernald had been cleaned-up. "I couldn't do my job, write the environmental reports and say that everything is cleaned up, when we're getting radon alarms."
Tetsuwari continued to grapple with what he claimed was, and is, a continuing radioactive threat at Fernald.
The known threat is uranium, it was processed at Fernald. Radioactive remnants of uranium hover in the groundwater in a plume beneath what is now the Fernald Nature Preserve.
While nearly $4.5 billion was spent on the clean-up and millions continue to be spent on removing the uranium in the groundwater, Tetsuwari claimed the government has not addressed the potential threat in the air - radon gas.
Radon is a colorless and odorless radioactive gas produced by the decay of uranium, and other elements. When that happens naturally deep in the earth, it's often trapped in basements of homes.
According to the National Cancer institute, radon in our homes causes an estimated 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths in the U.S. each year.
At Fernald, this massive mound called the on-site disposal facility, is full of low-level radioactive waste including soil from the clean-up and debris from the old uranium processing plant. Tetsuwari said those materials inside the mound produce a lot of radon. "That's basically a radon generator."
Bill Hertel, the Fernald site manager, insists the design of the landfill itself, which includes a multi-layer cap and a polyethylene membrane, prevents radon from being released. "It would be absorbed."
But when questioned further, Hertel admitted there is a way for gas to escape this mound, not at the top but at the bottom. That's where pipes inside sheds at base of mound buildings, called valve houses, drain leaching liquid from the radioactive waste pile.
Those ventilation systems were installed after strong odors began emanating inside the valve houses in 2007. The air was never tested for radon. "It was deemed that that was not a concern when we built the facility in the mid-to-late 1990's, so we have never sampled for radon in that facility."
Radon was monitored in other parts of the Fernald Preserve but that ended nine years ago, according to Hertel. "The reason we stopped sampling for radon is we had 10 years of data showing it was very near background."
Background is a scientific term for what is already there. When Tetsuwari was asked if the amount was in an acceptable range, he answered, "Because it's not tested, we don't know."
The lack of testing continued to frustrate and concern Tetsuwari. He complained to the EPA but says he never got a reply. He said he wouldn't live near the site.
Within months of talking to Local 12, Tetsuwari died of a massive heart attack. Duane Pohlman went to the funeral home to pay his respects. His wife said Tony remained frustrated because he blew the whistle about radioactive issues at Fernald and felt he was never heard.