It has been almost a year since Zahn’s Corner Middle School in Piketon, Ohio, abruptly shut its doors last May, soon after environmental tests showed the presence of enriched uranium on desks and other surfaces, and neptunium-237 in the air outside.
Located about four miles downwind of a Cold War-era uranium enrichment plant, the school still sits empty as worried—and frustrated—parents and educators attempt to ensure their community’s safety. State officials haven’t been any help, they say, while federal Department of Energy officials seem eager to simply (and literally) bury their mistakes.
“We are trying to get a path forward, but it’s hard. It seems like the Department of Energy really doesn’t give a damn about us,” says middle-school science teacher Dennis Foreman, who serves on Piketon’s village council and the plant’s site advisory board. In this corner of Appalachia, generations of people are accustomed to being dismissed and discounted, ignored and overlooked, by national media and by their own state and federal governments—but Foreman and his neighbors are not giving up, he says.
“I want my school kids to have the same clean air as any school kid in Ohio,” says school board chair and parent Brandon Wooldridge. “I want them outside on our playground or inside our classrooms with the HVAC on, breathing healthy air, just the same as kids who go to school 150 miles away.”
This spring, more environmental testing will be done by a third-party organization, hired by the Department of Energy but supposedly independent. Meanwhile the local Pike County General Health District is embarking on a cancer study of residents who live within seven miles of the plant. Everybody here seems to know somebody with thyroid cancer, or aggressive breast cancer, or multiple myeloma, and multiple lawsuits have been filed by residents who link their health issues to radioactive exposure from the plant. In recent years, five children have been diagnosed with cancer, and three died.
“For a small community, we’ve got quite a few tombstones from cancer,” says Foreman, including his mother and grandmother, who both died of multiple myeloma, a non-hereditary, blood cancer linked to environmental hazards. “You see some of these cancer specialists, and the first thing they ask you is, ‘Are you from southeast Ohio?'”
“Our kids are not expendable. They’re absolutely not expendable,” Pike County Health Commissioner Matt Brewster told local reporters in May. “They should be treated like kids anywhere, and they’re not.”
In July 2019, Foreman brought his concerns to the NEA Representative Assembly (RA), which voted to make this story more widely known. In NEA’s resolutions on “environmentally safe schools,” NEA formally states all schools must have “healthy indoor air quality,” and “be safe from environmental and chemical hazards.”
‘A’ Stands for Atomic
The history of contamination in Pike County goes back to 1952, when the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission selected nearly 4,000 acres of rolling farmland near the Ohio and Scioto rivers in southeast Ohio to build the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant (PORTS). Quickly constructed, the plant first was used to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium for Cold War-era nuclear submarines and weapons. In the 1960s, according to the Department of Energy, the plant’s focus shifted to enriching uranium for use in nuclear power plants.
Decades ago, gaseous diffusion was the only way to enrich uranium. The process works by compressing uranium in gaseous form and forcing it through piping, studded with permeable barriers. As it’s pushed through, the gas is increasingly enriched with uranium isotypes. In Portsmouth, enrichment took place across three buildings with cryptic names like X-330, each equipped with enormous compressors and miles of piping.
“I grew up in this area, but everything was so top-secret. People didn’t understand what was happening out there. It was called the A-Plant, and for so many years I didn’t know what A stood for,” says Elizabeth Lamerson, a middle-school parent and environmental biologist who can see the plant from her son’s bedroom window.
In 2001, the plant ceased its enrichment operations—a victim of technological advances that have made gaseous diffusion obsolete.
Since then, the Department of Energy has moved the plant into what it calls “D&D,” or deactivation and decommissioning. Nearly 50 years of enrichment added up to 2.2 million cubic yards of hazardous wastes and 415 contaminated facilities and structures. This includes tens of thousands of depleted uranium cylinders, and thousands of feet of piping and compressors still caked with radioactive material.
Meanwhile, five plumes of trichloroethylene, a chemical “carcinogenic in humans by all routes of exposure,” have been found contaminating on-site groundwater and local Little Beaver Creek, which flows directly through PORTS to the Ohio River. (Because of this, Lamerson and her husband no longer raise and sell cattle. “The cattle drank out of the well water,” she says. “You can’t, in good conscience, sell them and know you’re giving that problem to somebody else.”)
Cleaning it Up? Or Making it Worse.
Parents and community members want the site cleaned up, but few support the Department of Energy’s plans, which include open-air demolition of buildings, plus an onsite, underground waste disposal. “Open-air demolition is the biggest threat,” says Lamerson. “They say they’re going to spray water-mist to keep the dust down, but they’re just going to be dropping these buildings and you know how dust can be.”
“Boom! And it’s all over the county,” says Wooldridge.
When federal officials demolished a plutonium-finishing plant in Eastern Washington, using water-mist sprays to prevent radioactive dust from traversing the region, air-quality monitors found plutonium and americium as far as 10 miles away, according to the State of Washington Department of Ecology. Meanwhile, in Piketon, the plant’s nearest neighbor lives 1,007 feet away, says Lamerson.
The other part of the Department of Energy’s plan—the burial of up to 1.3 million cubic yards of radioactive materials and chemically toxic waste, making for the biggest nuclear waste dump east of the Mississippi—is equally alarming, say residents.
In 2017, the village of Piketon hired a consultant to review information submitted by the Department of Energy to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency about its underground storage plans. The consultant found that the government’s own data shows bedrock fractures that could lead the waste into the groundwater.
“Why don’t they put it out west, where it rains half-inch a year?” asks Wooldridge.
“Out west, it’d be 700 feet from an aquifer,” says Foreman. Instead, groundwater around the Portsmouth plant flows 20-something feet below the surface. And it rains five inches in May alone, on average. With this in mind, some residents have given up on their vegetable gardens, saying they can’t trust their soil anymore. Of particular concern to parents, the dump will be just 8,320 feet from the school.
Despite residents’ protests, construction of the underground waste cell is underway and it’d probably take a miracle to stop it, says Lamerson. Their pleas to state officials for help have gone nowhere.
Unfortunately, Ohio’s governor seems more concerned with regulating cigarettes than the known carcinogens in an Ohio school, says Wooldridge.
“As a parent of a Piketon student and a local elected official, I am very disappointed in the lack of action from Governor DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health director,” says Piketon council member Jennifer Chandler, an environmental engineer. School board members “are carrying the weight of this unfortunate situation on their shoulders alone, with no support from state leadership.”
This is often the way it is in Appalachia, she notes.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
The problems for Zahn’s Corner Middle School likely began in 2017, when workers began preparing the plant for demolition. “How much dirt did they move?” asks Foreman. “There is a thing called ‘fugitive dust,’” he says, referring to particulates that are stirred up and suspended in the air, often from unpaved roads or construction.
That year, the Department of Energy’s air-quality monitors, which are placed around the community, including across the street from the middle school, showed radioactive metals in the air, including neptunium-237. The following year, americium-241 showed up. Both can cause bone cancer, as well as damage to the lungs, liver, kidneys and thyroids. These findings weren’t reported to residents however, until 2019.
That’s when Lamerson reached out to Northern Arizona University (NAU) to analyze swabs taken from ostensibly clean desks and other surfaces inside the school. In its analysis, NAU found “non-fallout” radioactive materials, specifically enriched uranium. When school officials learned the results, they closed the school.
“We couldn’t have left those kids in that building,” says Wooldridge. “Who’s going to make that call? Who’s going to say what kid is next [to get sick?]”
Subsequent federal tests have done little to reassure residents. “Do I think it’s in the high school? No,” says Wooldridge. “Do I think it’s in the Career & Technical Center? I think there’s a good chance of it.” The problem, he says, is that nobody believes the Department of Energy to be honest about the presence of danger. “It didn’t take me long to catch on to their game of lies,” he says.
“I keep hearing the term ‘intellectual dishonesty.’ It’s not a lie, but it’s not the whole truth,” says Lamerson, who has paid thousands of dollars to install her own air-monitors on her farm.
Meanwhile, Foreman, an award-winning science teacher and athletic director who has been nicknamed Dennis Brockovich by his friends, is trying to find a path forward. Someday, the “cleaned-up” Portsmouth site will be returned to the community. Through his role on the site advisory board, “I’m trying to get them to build a regional DOE-funded STEM school with a DOE nuclear robotics lab and a worker development center,” he says.
Foreman wants his students and neighbors to have new opportunities to “provide for their families, to get a job.” Too often, he says, the people who live in the Appalachians are labeled dumb or lazy. What they really are, he says, is the opposite: smart, hard-working, and very willing to learn new skills, if given the chance. “With the right tools, we can be successful,” he says, pointing to the 100 percent passing rate in a recent Piketon-based, job-training program that prepared 20 residents, in partnership with U.S. Steelworkers, to work as highly paid technicians.
As for Zahn’s Corner, it’s hard to imagine the school re-opening its doors this August. “Would I send my son there?” asks Lamerson, who has a rising sixth-grader. “The answer is no.”