last revised April 15, 2012


No Vitrification of Fernald's High-level K-65 Residues
Implications for the Niagara Falls Storage Site?

In 2001 the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) made a cost-saving decision not to use vitrification, the best waste isolation technology currently available, to stabilize the extremely hazardous, long-lived radioactive K-65 residues that were stored in three silos at its former Fernald, OH uranium production facility; see Fernald background. This decision set a scientifically-insupportable precedent that is extremely short-sighted. It may result in even worse mismanagement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which in 1998 was given control of the high-level residues -- K-65 residues and other African ore residues (F-32, L-30, L-50 and R-10) -- that are stored at the Niagara Falls Storage Site (NFSS) near Lewiston, NY.

Fernald contaminated soils landfill
[Fernald contaminated soils landfill (19kb image)]

In 1994 the Department of Energy issued its first remediation decision for the Fernald facility. Known as the Silos (Operable Unit 4) Record of Decision, it called for all of the Fernald K-65 materials to be vitrified. The community was relieved; finally it seemed that the most hazardous of the Fernald materials were to be properly treated. However, seven years later the Department of Energy rescinded its 1994 Silos ROD -- but only after DOE had gained community acceptance for the construction of an onsite tumulus containing millions of cubic yards of uranium-contaminated soils, a tumulus fated, under the climatic conditions at this locale, to eventually contaminate the underlying Great Miami drinking water aquifer. In its July 2001 amendment to the original 1994 decision, the Energy Department switched instead to a "chemical stabilization" method, i.e. mixing the high-level K-65 residues with flyash-cement. This change to a grossly inferior treatment method was based solely on the higher cost of a proven vitrification technology -- a cost deemed by the Energy Department, the producers of the waste, to be too high. This change markedly reduces the effectiveness of the remedy to isolate the residues from the environment over the long term, thereby unjustly transferring our liabilities to future generations. This major amendment was approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency without satisfying the public's lawful right to further National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review in the form of an SEIS (Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement), the process clearly required by such a significant alteration of the original decision. After the 1994 Silos ROD, which was issued under NEPA and therefore immediately reviewable by the public in court, subsequent Fernald RODs were issued under CERCLA, popularly known as "Superfund". Since the SARA amendments of 1986, CERCLA RODs are not subject to public review in court before they are implemented; see the experience with CERCLA at the Tonawanda, NY FUSRAP site.

The adjacent aerial photo shows the proximity of the federally owned Niagara Falls Storage Site to the largest fresh water supply on the planet, the Niagara River and Great Lakes. The Niagara Fall Storage Site occupies 191 acres within the former 7500 acre federal compound known as the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works (LOOW). (The LOOW site is also currently under consideration for remediation of multiple contaminants resulting largely from previous federal military operations.)[1997 LOOW aerial (56 kb)]

When the original Fernald Silos ROD was issued, former Niagara Falls Congressman John LaFalce asked the National Academy of Science's National Research Council to study the question of how best to manage the NFSS residues to ensure long-term safety using the best available waste stabilization and isolation technologies. In May 1994, the Energy Department's Bob Seay arranged for an initial visit by the NASNRC study panel to the area. At an unadvertised public meeting on Grand Island, NY, Seay presented the study panel with a detailed overview of NFSS facts and issues entitled "Long-Term Management of the K-65 Residues at the Niagara Falls Storage Site". Of particular note is an excerpt from this presentation containing the recommendations of prominent EPA and NYS experts.

The subsequent 1995 National Academy of Science's National Research Council report, "Safety of the High-Level Uranium Ore Residues at the Niagara Falls Storage Site, Lewiston, New York," identified the K-65 residues as virtually indistinguishable in hazard from high-level radioactive waste (HLW). This report recommended that the Niagara Falls Storage Site residues should receive the same management approach chosen by DOE in its original 1994 ROD for Fernald's K-65 wastes (and also in the RODs for the HLW at Hanford, WA, Savannah River, SC, and West Valley, NY): namely, to maximize the longevity of waste stability and environmental isolation by vitrifying the residues in a glass-like matrix. Years later, instead of acting on the experts' recommendation to correct the existing faulty classification of these hot, high-radium-content African ore residues, another Congress put language in a FY2004 energy appropriation to ensure that these residues could be much more cheaply disposed as 'low-level' by-product material. Lewiston-Porter's member of Congress, Rep. Louise Slaughter, voted for this measure (see K-65 mismanagement page).

The 1995 National Academy of Science's National Research Council report also criticizes the Energy Department's clearly illegal, pre-ROD "interim action" at the Niagara Falls Storage Site -- wherein the K-65 residues were slurried from the silo to the building basements at the bottom of the NFSS tumulus -- for producing a temporary storage configuration that presents much greater waste removal hurdles. Now, before the residues can be properly stabilized, they will have to be dug out of the tumulus using more costly, specialized excavation techniques.

Former silo where K-65 residues were
stored at the LOOW/NFSS site

[LOOW silo (5kb)]

For a discussion of the Department of Energy's blatant violation of fundamental provisions of the NEPA public review process that effected this relatively inexpensive but very unwise, short-term, band-aid remedy, see a letter to former DOE Secretary Hazel O'Leary from Resident's Organized for Lewiston-Porter's Environment (ROLE). A bystanding Cuomo administration did not take the legal actions against the Reagan DOE necessary to ensure a legitimate National Environmental Policy Act process, despite the NYS Department of Health's clear understanding of what was happening and public calls for it to do so. A NEPA process and the pertinent radioactive waste control guidelines to protect New Yorkers' long-term public health interest were in place, but effective State leadership was missing.

Amazingly, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the "responsible" government agency at the NFSS for the moment, now unabashedly points to this additional high residue excavation cost in arguments to leave the residues in the tumulus. The lesson would seem to be that government malfeasance once successful begets not only further government disregard of environmental protection and public health laws, but also a glib contempt of proper NEPA process.

On the subject of cost, it is worth noting that $803 billion US taxpayer dollars have been spent in the War on Iraq to date (see National Priorities Project page for an up-to-date total). All spent in the name of eliminating the Bush/Blair claimed, but in fact non-existent, Iraqi stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Meanwhile, our own huge, known WMD legacy continues to be poorly addressed because of "cost considerations".

That these Manhattan Project legacy wastes have been left to bleed into the landscape for over sixty years is a national disgrace. Contrary to the claims of many officials (to this day), our government leaders and their scientists did know the harmful nature of these wastes from the very outset. (For example: see the memo in this article, and a 1995 FACTS Newsletter excerpt.) If not changed, our federal and State governments' ongoing mismanagement of these legacy wastes will inevitably result in much greater health and economic harm to our children and future generations.

Following cancellation of the Yucca Mountain HLW repository project by President Obama in 2009, EPA requested that Army Corps' upcoming CERCLA decision at NFSS apply radiation protection standards to the NFSS K-65 residues equivalent to the federal HLW disposal regulations, 40 CFR 191. Since these standards can not be met in the NFSS geographic area, in effect the EPA recommendation means that EPA wants the residues to be exhumed from the IWCS and re-located elsewhere, presumably to an interim HLW storage facility. See EPA letter of July 27, 2009 and follow-up letter of September 8, 2009.

NFSS Photo Gallery

1985 photo of Building 411 foundation prior to slurrying
of K-65 residues from the silo - note the standing water :

[Bldg. 411, 1985]

2002 aerial photo showing a portion of current boundary of NFSS :

[NFSS - 2002 aerial photo - east]

Recent aerial view and map showing the properties within the LOOW site :

[Recent aerial view of LOOW site (46kb, size = 513 x 477)]

[Current LOOW landowners]

1944 aerial photo showing locations of some key
buildings at the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works :

[LOOW - 1944 aerial photo - NE]

In this 1944 aerial photo showing the NFSS portion of the 7500 acre
Lake Ontario Ordnance Works, the location of the current tumulus or
"Interim Waste Containment Structure" (IWCS) is outlined in red :

[LOOW - 1944 aerial - NE]

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