Radioactive Nightmare on Elm St.
The waitress at the ice cream shop in Concord, Massachusetts was surprised. "A Superfund site?" she asked, incredulous, "on Main Street?" Not just a Superfund site -- a Superfund site that a cleanup contractor has dubbed "near the tip of the peak in terms of [cleanup] difficulty." A radioactive Superfund site.
Concord, the crucible of the American Revolution, where the "shot heard 'round the world" rang out on April 19, 1775, is a Boston suburb filled with professionals and stately homes. Tourists still come to see the war sites, and to visit the bucolic Walden Pond that Thoreau celebrated.
Few know about the nuclear waste dump at 2229 Main Street. But this shady burg of 15,000 residents quietly struggles with its legacy as the maker of depleted uranium slugs for the U.S. military's latest wars. The soil more than a mile from the nuclear dump is radioactive. A 1993 epidemiological study found the town's residents suffered higher rates of cancer than the state average.
Today, atop and buried beneath a low hill above a cranberry bog, more than 3,800 barrels of radioactive and toxic waste lie, subject to a government-paid cleanup estimated to take 10 years and cost at least $50 million.
The company responsible for most of the waste, Starmet, declared bankruptcy in 2002. Massachusetts has sued Starmet and several related companies to enforce state laws against radioactive dumping, with little success thus far. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hastily concluded that Starmet was broke and has not required it to pay for the pending cleanup.
"All of the people who benefited and made millions from the process are not being tagged at all with the cleanup process," says Mark Roberts, an environmental lawyer and member of Citizens Research and Environmental Watch (CREW), a citizens group that has fought to get the site cleaned up for more than 20 years.
Since 1958, Starmet (formerly known as Nuclear Metals) processed depleted uranium into tank shells and armor for the U.S. Army, using caustic acids, beryllium and other dangerous substances. From the early 1970s until 1985, the company dumped depleted uranium into an unlined lagoon on the property, sending a toxic plume of radiation, heavy metals and solvents migrating into the groundwater, fouling at least two wells. The company resisted pressure to clean up the lagoon until 1997, when the pond was finally dug up and the soils shipped to a low-level nuclear waste dump in Utah. That project was costly, though, and the remediation company sued Starmet for unpaid bills. At roughly the same time, military orders for depleted uranium munitions stopped too. Starmet began to lose money.
In May 2001, Starmet officials illegally shipped 1,700 barrels of depleted uranium "greensalt" from a company facility in Barnwell, South Carolina to Concord. The cash-strapped company was cleaning the South Carolina facility in preparation for sale, EPA documents say.
When Massachusetts' health and environmental officials protested, Starmet's president, Robert Quinn, threatened to abandon the Concord site and stick the state with the cost of cleanup. In 2002, after the state forced bankrupt Starmet into receivership, according to EPA records, the company did abandon the site for several weeks.
Nowadays Quinn -- who angrily blames the U.S. Army for Starmet's bankruptcy -- sits at a lonely desk in a low building on the site while a few security guards watch over the mess. And what a fine mess it is. Conservatively speaking, there is at least 20 times more depleted uranium on and under Starmet's 46 acres on Main Street, Concord than the 340 tons that were fired in all of Iraq during the first Gulf War. There are tons of beryllium -- a probable carcinogen -- in the soil and leaking from buried drums. And in a recently discovered area known as the "old dump" there are unknown substances, possibly including high-level radioactive waste and exotic explosives.
Much of the work during the next four to five years will consist of determining what's in the barrels buried in the old dump, according to Bruce Thompson of De Maximis, Inc., the engineering group chosen by EPA to head the cleanup process. He says some preliminary research indicates that exotic radioactive and heavy metals may have been buried there by MIT scientists during the Manhattan Project. He is also concerned about the potential presence of an explosive, zirconium azide. "That's something I don't want to hit with a backhoe," Thompson told a town subcommittee meeting in September.
That Thompson and the EPA arrived in Concord at all is credit to the efforts of a small group of committed activists. CREW is led by Rick Oleson, a Princeton and Harvard-educated radiation biologist and toxicologist whose late father was a nuclear physicist. Oleson spent part of his childhood in a house near the factory. State records show the most contaminated area on the site is adjacent to "Camp Thoreau," a summer camp for children ages three and up.
"It's one industrial setting in a very residential area," says Oleson. "People later could put a house or well there, or grow vegetables." Oleson and CREW are focusing their efforts to make sure the EPA demands that the dump is cleaned up to a "residential level," rather than the looser standards allowable for an "industrial" site.
Jeffrey McNabola was a member of Concerned Citizens of Concord, CREW's predecessor, in the 1970s and early 1980s. He notes that the group was warning people about the dangers of depleted uranium and other activities at Nuclear Metals for decades before anyone in officialdom gave them any credence. "There was a cavalier attitude about depleted uranium," he says. "They said that it's safe as chocolate milk."
Even Oleson took years to conclude that Nuclear Metals' activities were unacceptable. "I used to cross-country ski and run back there," he says of the woods bordering the dumpsite. "It was a very pretty place...and there was this big pond. It was full of psychedelic colors."
Oleson and CREW are hunkering down for a long battle, keeping a wary eye on the EPA and its contractors. Loath to link deaths from cancer or rare diseases to the factory, Oleson (who works for Monsanto) and others in CREW strive to hue a strict scientific line -- lest they appear as "radicals."
The strategy seems to be working. "The real story behind the story I tell people," Oleson says, "is that a few people volunteered their time to do something that needed doing. And for years they were dismissed and made fun of. And they totally turned the town around."