History repeats itself
BY TIM BONFIELD
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Four decades have passed since the Fernald uranium processing plant transformed 1,050 acres of sleepy farmland 18 miles northwest of Cincinnati into a vital part of America's nuclear weapons complex.
From construction that began in 1951 to the end of operations in 1989, more than 7,000 workers at Fernald produced the raw material for the atomic bombs that helped win the Cold War. Yet the Fernald legacy also has been tarred by four decades of secrecy, denial, false assurance.
As an Enquirer investigation shows, this web of deceit continues today - even after a history laced with countless government reports, audits and hearings; two historic class-action lawsuit settlements on behalf of neighbors and workers; and a litany of allegations and protests from whistleblowers and community activists.
Throughout its history, the Department of Energy has changed management at the Fernald site three times. And since closing the plant in 1989, the government has poured up to $260 million a year into cleaning up the radioactive and hazardous pollution left behind. Questions about how well that money has been spent have plagued Fernald for years.
But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Fernald's checkered past is that, compared with other nuclear weapons sites, Fernald is considered by many to be a success story.
Fernald is one of the few nuclear sites that has completed the years of planning involved in deciding how to clean up the mess. In fact, some of the real cleanup work has begun.
Longtime critics of Fernald have hailed the level of public involvement in recent years. And after bad experiences with previous contractors, the agreement between the Energy Department and FERMCO was envisioned as a national model for cleaning up other Superfund sites.
''Things were pretty bad 12 years ago, but now we have a seat at the table,'' said Lisa Crawford, president of Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH). Mrs. Crawford has fought for 12 years to close and clean up Fernald.
''The biggest deception was that nobody really knew what this plant really did,'' Mrs. Crawford said. ''People just flat-out were not told. It was damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. We're going to build bombs no matter what. We have taught them that it doesn't pay to lie anymore. People have the right to know what is in their water and what is in their air.''
A review of more than 1,000 news articles about Fernald reveals that a pattern of denial started from the day construction began in 1951 - just two years after the Soviet Union had detonated its first atomic bomb.