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Energy secretary urges Ohio officials to move quickly to test for nuclear contamination

By Jessica Wehrman • May 22, 2019 at 12:26 AM

WASHINGTON — The U.S. secretary of energy is urging the community around the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in southern Ohio to quickly pick a company to test for contamination in the area near the plant.

In a letter Tuesday to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Secretary Rick Perry said his agency's staffers "eagerly await the community's selection" of a third party to test for radiological contamination in the area around the former plant, a former uranium enrichment plant that stopped production in 2001.

"I urge the community to quickly identify an expert company or individual to conduct this study so that testing can be done before the upcoming school year," he wrote.

in response, DeWine said: "I thank Secretary Perry for his prompt response and his pledge for the third party study to be completed as quickly as possible. I concur with with Secretary Perry's plan for an accelerated testing schedule for the school, and I welcome the Department of Energy and others to begin this process as soon as is feasible. I am asking that Pike County officials engage their chosen independent entity by the end of May. I am pledging to provide any staff resources from Ohio EPA and the Ohio Department of Health that Pike County officials need to engage their selection."

Last week, the Scioto Valley Local School District in Pike County closed Zahn's Corner Middle School after the Energy Department reported that air monitors near the school had detected trace amounts of neptunium a radioactive isotope, in 2017. The Pike County General Health District was further alarmed by a report by researchers at Northern Arizona University that detected uranium and plutonium in homes, schools and creeks around the plant. The Energy Department later disclosed that it had also found trace amounts of a second isotope, americium, in 2018.

Perry was responding to a Thursday missive from DeWine to Assistant Secretary of Environmental Management Anne White, who is overseeing cleanup efforts at the 16 remaining nuclear sites in the country.

In the letter, DeWine said though his understanding was that though the amounts of neptunium and americium detected "are far below any public health risks," he "fully" expected the Department of Energy to "move quickly to complete this investigation to ensure that the Scioto Valley Local School District will have results ahead of the rapidly approaching 2019–2020 school year."

"I also would encourage DOE to provide any new radiological data to (the Ohio Department of Health) as soon as possible so that department experts can evaluate this data to make informed decisions regarding any potential public health concerns," DeWine wrote.

Perry wrote that he has directed the department to release all raw air monitoring data for the 16 Portsmouth air sampling locations form 2015 through the first quarter of 2019.

"This provides a more complete picture of the information we have," he wrote, saying the data have been provided to authorities in Pike County, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Department of Health.

The third–party study will be paid for via an existing grant to Ohio University. The third party will conduct tests of the Piketon community's four schools and other areas of interest, Perry wrote.

But finding a third–party group to actually test the site has turned out to be something of a challenge, said Matt Brewster, health commissioner for the Pike County General Health District. He said his agency has spoken to at four different labs that have backed out before committing.

"When they realize what the scope of the work is as far as DOE involvement and the political nature of it all, they decline," he said. "It's a small, specialized field and some people, I think, don't want to ruffle the DOE's feathers if they have major contract work that comes from DOE."

The community, Brewster said, is "still looking.

"It would be great to have one selected by the end of the week," he said.

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©2019 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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