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Radioactive Ooze Buttresses Dumping Claims in Kentucky

By Joby Warrick and Joe Stephens

The discovery of radioactive black ooze seeping from the ground a quarter-mile from the U.S.-owned uranium plant here has buttressed workers’ claims of unlicensed dumping of hazardous waste outside the factory fence.

The chance finding of the ooze by plant workers last month led to the uncovering of a burial ground for radioactive debris just north of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, federal officials confirmed last week. The waste, barely hidden beneath a thin layer of soil in a grassy lot, came to light when workers noticed a tar-like substance pooling in the tracks made by their truck.

Department of Energy officials fenced off the site and reported the discovery to Kentucky’s environmental regulators.

“We’re very concerned about any improper disposal of radioactive material,” said Mark York of the Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet, which is investigating the incident.

The presence of contaminated material outside the plant appears to corroborate one the most serious allegations contained in a worker lawsuit filed in June against the plant’s former operators: that radioactive hazards were dumped outside the plant in areas within easy reach of the public.

The finding comes in the second week of an Energy Department investigation at the Paducah plant, which for 47 years produced enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, Navy submarines and commercial power plants. The probe was launched following reports of contamination and sloppy waste management at the plant, including worker exposure to plutonium and other highly radioactive material.

Thousands of tons of contaminated material are known to be buried in trenches or piled in scrap heaps inside the plant’s security fence; a key point of contention is whether radioactive material was also dumped outside the plant in violation of state waste permits.

The suit by workers and an environmental group says contaminated debris streamed out the plant for years. Some was allegedly dumped in woods and abandoned buildings in a state wildlife area. But other waste was trucked to a state-licensed landfill authorized to accept only nonhazardous trash, the suit contends. The landfill, which was closed in 1996, is on federal government property just north of the plant fence.

“If you can kick up black ooze just by driving across a field, it makes you wonder what else is out there,” said Joseph Egan, a lawyer representing workers in the suit.

Both the Department of Energy and the plant’s current manager, U.S. Enrichment Corp., have contended that they are unaware of any radioactive wastes going into the sanitary landfill. Documents prepared by former contractors list the contents of the dump as “uncontaminated trash and garbage.” The landfill is “permitted and operated according to Kentucky regulations,” according to plant records.

But the discovery of the radioactive black ooze in an area just outside the landfill is sure to add heat to the debate. The ooze was found July 15 by contract workers preparing to install monitoring wells to investigate another possible indication of contamination: radioactive metals in groundwater near the dump, discovered last December.

When workers noticed tar-like liquid in one of the tracks left by their drilling truck, they first suspected an oil leak. They dug into the earth and turned up what appeared to be bits of tar paper and asphalt shingles.

Not until three weeks later, after further excavating at the site, did plant officials learn that material was contaminated. Radioactivity readings were hundreds of times above levels found naturally in soil; they were also nearly nine times higher than the plant’s “action level,” the limit that triggers immediate steps to seal contaminated areas inside the plant.

Lab tests confirmed the presence of uranium and technetium. Technetium, a radioactive metal that travels quickly through soil, was one of the contaminants brought into the plant inadvertently during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s in shipments of recycled uranium from government nuclear reactors used to produce plutonium.