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Radioactive waste from former Ohio military supplier headed to Michigan

By KEITH MATHENY | Detroit Free Press (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 1, 2017

A controversial hazardous waste landfill off I-94 near Belleville is to receive tens of thousands of cubic yards of radioactive soil and other waste from a former military supplier in Ohio.

And the supervisor of the township hosting the landfill is upset that the landfill owner hasn't let local officials know it's coming.

U.S. Ecology's Wayne Disposal hazardous waste landfill in Van Buren Township is proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take low-level radioactive waste as part of a major cleanup of what's known as the Luckey site, a long-shuttered beryllium plant in Luckey, Ohio. The plant supplied the strong, light but highly toxic metal to the U.S. military and Atomic Energy Commission in the 1940s and 1950s.

The process of extracting beryllium over the years left behind low-level radioactive material that's naturally occurring in soils and rock — radioactivity that became more concentrated as the leftover materials accumulated, said Stephen Buechi, the Army Corps' project manager for the Luckey site cleanup.

"It's above cleanup levels that are established that look at potential long-term risks for exposures to the soils,"  he said.

The Army Corps believes approximately 130,000 cubic yards of contaminated soils will require excavation and disposal from the Luckey site as part of a $244-million federal cleanup, Buechi said. A cubic yard of soil weighs about one ton.

Additionally, about 1,000 tons of radioactive scrap metal was shipped to the Luckey site in the early 1950s, in anticipation of converting the plant back to its original magnesium processing activities. The metal was ultimately stored and never used for magnesium production and must also be removed, he said.

The majority of the material, believed contaminated with only beryllium, is proposed for a specially designated landfill in Northwood, Ohio, Buechi said. Soils with more complicated contamination would head to Wayne Disposal under the plan, he said.

"The two different facilities have different waste acceptance criteria," Buechi said. "If the criteria aren't met for the Northwood facility, we would look at the U.S. Ecology Michigan facility as the next proposed location."

U.S. Ecology officials are coordinating with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to accept the waste, and state approval will be required in order for it to come to Michigan, he said.

U.S. Ecology spokesman David Crumrine responded to Free Press requests for an interview with an e-mailed statement.

"The Luckey, OH, legacy contaminated site is the latest site to undergo remediation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) for very low concentrations of naturally occurring radioactive contaminants in the soil resulting from historical operations. U.S. Ecology is proud to partner with and support the USACE with this cleanup effort."

The levels of radiation in the waste are low enough that they are not regulated by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Crumrine said.

"The waste is compliant with all State of Michigan regulations regarding the safe possession, handling and disposal of low activity radioactive materials," he said.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials did not respond to requests for comment Friday afternoon.

News of the Ohio waste's shipment to Michigan is the latest chapter in the often uncomfortable relationship among local residents, Van Buren Township and Wayne County officials and the U.S. Ecology landfill, which has expanded exponentially and taken on increasingly complicated and toxic waste over decades. Because of its unusual disposal capabilities, Wayne Disposal takes in hazardous waste from states throughout the eastern U.S., including low-level radioactive wastes from oil and gas fracking in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

"The U.S. Ecology facility in Van Buren Township is a national asset and a key component in protecting our nation’s communities from exposure to uncontrolled sites of contamination," Crumrine said. "It is perfectly suited for handling wastes from federally administered and funded cleanup programs."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2013 approved Wayne Disposal to expand its disposal capacity for toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, by almost 12 million cubic yards.

"We have been denied access to what wastes they bring into this landfill. We have no say in it," said Van Buren Township Supervisor Kevin McNamara.

McNamara said he had a telephone conversation with U.S. Ecology officials shortly after taking office four months ago.

"I said that if they bring in anything new, we want to know about it," he said. "We want to know what safety precautions are being taken. That if they attempted to bring in any waste, any low-level radioactive waste, we are opposed to that, and asked them to contact us.

"They have contacted us about other waste streams. But on this (Luckey) waste stream, they never did notify us. And I am not happy about that."

Wayne County officials also expressed concern.

“We are vehemently opposed to the disposal of radioactive material at any Wayne County site," county director of communications Jim Martinez said. "We have been made to understand that the facility is presently authorized by the state to accept such waste at that site and it (the site) has accepted this type of material in the past. We are making inquiries of everyone involved."

Any wastes shipped to Wayne Disposal from the Luckey site will have to meet the landfill's waste acceptance criteria — if it doesn't, it will have to be disposed of elsewhere, said David Frothingham, chief of the environmental branch for the Army Corps' Buffalo District, which is overseeing the cleanup.

The scope of the cleanup in Luckey — and uncertainty of full federal funding going forward — indicate "you're probably looking at years instead of months" for full remediation of the site, Buechi said.

The U.S. Ecology facility is designed and engineered to federal standards for hazardous waste treatment and disposal, Crumrine said. The Luckey site waste "will be handled using proven safety best practices and disposed of in our landfill no differently than other hazardous waste," he said.

"Our top priorities are ensuring public safety and protecting the public health of the communities we serve," he said.

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