News: Fernald: Area's New Nature Preserve

Making a Superfund site a pastoral refuge

Aug 25, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Stephen Carter-Novotni

Various exhibits at the Fernald Preserve will help visitors learn the site's history, according to Sue Walpole, community relations manager. This toxic waste disposal canister, signed by Fernald employees, will be on display.

It sounds like a joke: Fernald, formerly home to the Feed Materials Processing Center — a uranium foundry for the manufacture of nuclear weapons until 1989, and then a federal Superfund site — is now the Fernald Preserve, an environmental education center.

"Superfund," a designation created in 1980, provides for the cleanup of toxic sites around the country. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lacks the funds to clean up all of the 1,240 sites on the Superfund National Priority List, so the parties responsible are ordered to clean up their own messes. In the case of Fernald, that's the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Closing the site has been an ongoing project of the DOE since 1989. The job has included shipping nearly 1 million tons of low-level radioactive waste off-site and containing 2.5 million cubic yards of contaminated soil and building materials — the demolished buildings used for uranium processing — in waste pits on site.

Closing the site also includes legacy management, according to Sue Walpole, community relations manager at Fernald. Fernald's future is in ecological education, she says.

Deer and barbed wire
A visit to the Fernald Preserve is somewhat different from strolling through a county park. When I met Walpole at Fernald, she opened a security gate for my car and closed it behind me.

The site is scenic and rustic and teems with life.

Beavers, hawks and more than 150 other bird species call the 1,050 acres home. Salamanders feed in Fernald's vernal pools. Other terrain includes marshland and forested areas, wetlands and prairie grass. There's a security fence, too, topped with barbed wire and prominently marked with radioactivity warning signs.

The fence circles Fernald's waste mound — which is larger than a football field. Walpole notes the signs with annoyance and describes the mound as safe, saying that she hopes the fence can come down one day so people can walk on top to survey the rest of the grounds, which are broad and flat. Fernald presents an ironically pastoral setting for a place that was once a cornerstone in U.S. nuclear weapons production.

Where there once was a toxic liability, Walpole says she sees "this piece of land and the history here. We're trying to bring it back to the way it was 200 years ago."

A large, industrial-style building at the center of the site will become a visitors' center. As a nod to local Native American heritage, entrances have been aligned with the line of sight of the sun during the summer and winter solstices.

On one side of the center will be exhibits chronicling the history of the site: a pre-19th century wild, natural area; 19th and 20th century farmland; the Cold War production facility of 1951-1989; and its current incarnation as an intended environmentalist mecca. The other side of the center will detail the ecology that one can see at while visiting.

"We're really looking forward to making this a community asset," says Jane Powell, DOE site manager.

She says the restoration project has been an attempt to "give nature a jump start" on recovery and says she becomes teary-eyed when she thinks about how Fernald has changed.

"I can still remember what it was when I was here in 1985 to 1991," she says. "I think five years from now you won't be able to tell where the footprint was."

Deer crossed our path several times during the tour, and it's easy to see things that way. I could have fallen asleep in the shade of the pine trees planted as part of Lady Bird Johnson's beautification project.

Uranium in wells
But because of its history, there's a looming, elephant-in-the-room sort of feeling that goes along with visiting Fernald. There's been a pattern of mismanagement during the cleanup process — a well documented trail of financial waste and dangerous practices — and an ongoing fear of water contamination in the surrounding areas (see "Suspicion Runs Through It," issue of Feb. 16, 1995). There's also the radon gas that leaked from the site and shortened the lives of area residents (see Burning Questions, issue of Jan. 1, 1999).

EPA monitoring agrees with DOE findings: The air is safe to breathe, and the dirt is safe to walk on. The really nasty solid waste has been hauled away and moved to dumps in Texas. The intensive work is now done on the water.

Because significant uranium plumes remain in a sandy aquifer beneath the site, an on-site water treatment plant has run continuously since 1993. The EPA mandates that Fernald can discharge no more than 30 parts per billion of uranium in its wastewater. Fernald's discharge is consistently lower than that, according to the EPA. The treatment plant has 7,800 pounds of uranium filtered from the water during the past 14 years, according to employee Dave Hinaman, a spokesman for DOE. Another 600 pounds have been discharged each year — almost as much as has been extracted. That's within EPA guidelines, and the public water supply is reported to be safe.

The EPA-monitored wells located just off-site have detected uranium concentrations that are higher than what is allowed in drinking water. One well, less than a mile from the site, had more than twice the concentration allowed for drinking water when it was checked in 2006. But it's not a danger, Walpole says. Anyone living close enough to Fernald to be affected uses public water. Water treatment is targeted to complete the purge and lower the uranium to EPA drinking water standards by 2026.

Crosby Township Trustee Chris Dole says development in Crosby is expected to double the population in the next 10 years, and the Fernald Preserve will help attract new residents. ©