American Chernobyl: How an Ohio plant vented raw nuclear materials into the air

Patrick Keck

The Portsmouth Daily Times, Ohio

PIKETON — Earlier this month, former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant employees and their families came forward with a lawsuit against contractors of the U.S. Department of Energy with allegations of a culture of corruption, misinformation, and endangerment to families across southern Ohio.

According to the DOE’s Portsmouth/Paducah Project Office, the 3,777-acre site operated from 1954 to 2001 and enriched weapons-grade uranium during the Cold War. While working with hazardous, radioactive materials, the suit claims safety measures were insufficient causing exposure and subsequent bodily injuries and diseases.

“The United States Department of Energy and its contractors, through their criminal acts, negligence, and reckless and intentional misconduct, have created a situation akin to a creeping Chernobyl,” the 77-page suit reads, filed in the U.S. District Court in Columbus. “They are responsible for unconscionably poisoning workers and the people, land, air, and water for miles around PORTS causing an increased risk of disease, fatal illnesses and death.”

Long a subject of scrutiny, the suit is the latest accusation against the plant believed to be the source of contamination found at Zahn’s Corner Middle School, where discoveries of enriched uranium and Neptunium-237 led to its closure last December.

Listed in the suit are DOE contractors: Centrus Energy Corp., the United States Enrichment Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., Uranium Disposition Services, BWXT Conversion Services, mid-America Conversion Services, Bechtel Jacobs Co., Lata/Parallax Portsmouth LLC, FLUOR-BWXT Portsmouth LLC, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. and Martin Marietta Inc.

The lawsuit finds the plant to be of considerable danger to anyone within 30 miles of its Piketon location, where cancer rates in some affected areas, including parts of Scioto, Pike, Lawrence, Vinton and Adams counties, are 700% higher than the national average.

Data from the Ohio Department of Health found Scioto County’s cancer rates were greater than the U.S. and Ohio averages, including a mortality rate of 195.2 per 100,000 that was above the U.S. rate of 161.0 per 100,000 between 2012 and 2016.

For 26 years, plaintiffs Jeff Walburn of Greenup County and Charles “Chick” Lawson of Lucasville have led the fight against DOE, taking their case before the U.S. Senate in 2000. They are calling for a proper investigation, accounting for both the medical issues the plant caused and the cover-up.

“We want DOE to stand good for what they’ve done,” said Walburn, a plant security guard of 31 years and former Portsmouth City Councilman.

During his time with the plant, Walburn and his family suffered from injury and disease, himself hospitalized in July 1994 after a toxic release caused lung damage. His wife, Karen Walburn, developed malignant melanoma and his brother James had Esophageal cancer and his son, James has bowel cancer. Walburn’s brother-in-law David Fields had kidney cancer.

Reports of his injury were subject of a cover-up, the suit alleges, as Lawson, working as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Investigator, determined Walburn’s and others’ medical records and logbooks had been falsified.

Their attempts to bring the story to light have been met by lethal threats, Walburn and Lawson claim, the terms “Walburned” and “Chickicized” created to elicit fear in plant workers about the consequences of revealing their stories.

Lawson’s role as Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigator and Union Safety Representative for 15 years resulted in deadly threats to himself and his family and a diagnosis of chronic beryllium disease, which significantly impairs his lung functions.

“That’s what I’ve had to live with,” said Lawson, recalling instances of threats.

Ultimately, the plaintiffs are seeking justice through the creation of a medical monitoring program to evaluate the true damages caused by the plant.

“Monitoring is critical because of the generational impacts of radiation exposure,” the suit reads. “The harms visited upon Plaintiffs and Class Members are irreparable. Money damages alone will not suffice because it is impossible to predict with any certainty the costs of such monitoring and treatment for each individual Class Member.”

Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at pkeck@aimmediamidwest.com, or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.

© 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.

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©2020 The Portsmouth Daily Times (Portsmouth, Ohio)

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