The plant was erected in Pike County, Ohio during the cold war to enrich uranium. Then people started getting sick. Now, they’re stuck cleaning up the mess.
By Kevin Williams
Vina Colley, a slight woman with a bob of thick blond hair, climbs into her white Ford Explorer. Her thirteen-year-old Maltese, Hercules jumps onto her lap, wedging comfortably between her legs and the steering wheel, and stays put as she navigates the steep ridges and plunging hollows of Pike County, Ohio. Colley is seventy-four, and, for nearly forty years, she’s been fighting the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, known locally as “The A-Plant” or PORTS. Her home library holds scores of totes filled with neatly labeled documents, a paper trail that exposes what she sees as Portsmouth’s darkest and most egregious secrets.
The plant, nestled on the edge of Ohio’s Appalachia, is just a few minutes’ drive from Pike County, a long hour south of Columbus and ninety minutes east of Cincinnati. It was built during the Cold War, in 1952, to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons and the U.S. Department of Energy’s atomic energy program. Gaseous diffusion is, basically, a process of enriching uranium through a series of feeds and cascades. This particular process has since fallen out of favor, as technological advances have made the process obsolete—the plant stopped enriching uranium by by diffusion in 2001, and, in 2007, a portion of the facility was adapted into the American Centrifuge Plant. But in its prime, gaseous diffusion was a big deal for Pike County. It was also, Colley argues, a serious threat.
Vina Colley was Erin Brockovich before Erin Brockovich. By the time Brockovich—later played famously by Julia Roberts in the movie of the same name—was building her successful case against Pacific Gas & Electric in California, in 1993, Colley had already been battling the A-Plant for a decade. She alleges the plant has duped area residents for years about the health dangers of its processes, and that the government has created an impossible-to-navigate claims system in response. Colley has become an unlikely citizen-scientist, spending a lifetime researching and documenting PORTS and its sins.
Colley was hired as an electrician at the facility in 1980 and worked there for three years. “I was exposed to everything. We were cleaning off radioactive equipment that we did not know was radioactive. They never told us,” Colley told me. Then, she said, her hair started falling out, she developed rashes, and “I got really sick and went to the hospital, not knowing that it was my job causing me all these problems. I had big tumors.” In the four decades since, she’s faced a range of health problems, including chronic bronchitis, tumors, and pulmonary edema.
Colley is not alone. Around Pike and Scioto Counties, the stories flow as freely as creeks: a child who died of leukemia, a whole family felled by cancer, an uncle with unusual tumors on his neck, a cousin with a stillborn baby, someone with kidney issues, and on and on. I recently went around interviewing people about these stories. (When I pulled into one driveway, to talk to a resident near the plant, they said, simply, “you’ll need to call my lawyer.”) Portsmouth’s hidden legacy has created a cohort of other citizen-scientists, home-grown atomic Brokoviches, and residents who reel off statistics about isotope half-lives, transuranic neptunium, and beryllium, like people elsewhere might talk about the weather or fishing.
Pike County is one of the state’s most impoverished, with twenty percent of the population living below the poverty line, according to 2019’s Ohio Poverty Report. Neighboring Scioto County is in even worse shape, with twenty-three percent living in poverty. The economics of the region have barely budged in half a century. Thousands of workers, a mix of contractors and employees, work at the A-Plant, one of the only chances for a decent income. A recent hiring notice for a plant security specialist advertised a salary starting in the mid-fifties, double the per capita median. Other jobs, like a junior radiation protection technician, require only a high school diploma and can make $19 an hour to start, gradually going up to $36 an hour.
But for decades, Colley says, the perils of these high-paying jobs were kept hidden, and those are the people Colley has devoted her life to trying to help.
From the beginning, the plant’s operations were shrouded in mystery. Jason Lamson, who has lived in the area most of his sixty-three years, remembers when construction started. “My Dad was a farmer here, and people snuck into town from the federal government and told people they were going to build a Purina mills plant. The water tower at the plant used to be checkered,” he said. “It was done—you’ll never hear any of them tell you this—it was done to help fool the public. The people around here didn’t really know what was happening out there.”
Lamson says similar tactics were employed in Fernald, Ohio. For years the checkered water towers at Fernald and Portsmouth lulled people into thinking the non-descript plants were making kibbles, not nukes. Others had a vague sense that the facilities were connected to the Cold War, but few questioned the industry’s presence in an area where it was desperately needed.
Bill Richardson, who served as Secretary of Energy under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s (and later as Governor of New Mexico), said the sites for these plants were selected for specific reasons. “If you look at where we put these plants, they were very rural areas away from big cities in areas that needed jobs, there was a little bit of that bias, but at the same time, the compensation had to be enough to attract the more skilled workers,” Richardson said. Also, he said, these places “were not as populated or politically powerful—that was the old days.”
Eventually, people started getting sick. As early as 1957, the workers’ union alerted authorities about illness among workers, specifically leukemia. And in 1962, a sum of $12,500 was quietly paid to a worker as compensation for health issues. Colley, with her network of contacts and field research, has compiled generations of information about the plant. She has testified in court cases, gone to Russia to learn from scientists there about the dangers of radiation contamination, and been knee deep in the local creeks with EPA officials, testing for pollutants.
The government spent years publicly denying the plants had anything to do with the sicknesses in the community. A 1996 report from the Department of Energy concluded: “There appears to be no off-site threat to public health from any site activity or release. ATSDR found off-site contamination was not at levels that could cause adverse health effects. Radiation measurements off-site did not exceed normal variations in background for the region.” But, by 2000, Richardson and others looked at a series of studies and recognized a relationship.
In 2006, the Dayton Daily News found plumes of poisoned groundwater, “thousands of metal cylinders of corrosive radioactive waste,” and buildings contaminated with radiation, beryllium, PCBs and asbestos, and spoke with former employees who had become sick as a result of their time working at the plant. More recently, in the spring of 2019, Zahn’s Corner Middle School, located just two miles from the A-Plant, was abruptly shut down after random testing showed traces of neptunium-237, an enriched uranium residue and byproduct of nuclear reactors.
Today, the school sits eerily empty, surrounded by a hastily erected fence from the National Fence Company. A marquee outside still read: “Go Streaks!” Standing outside, I could envision, only a year ago, a campus crowded with young teenagers just starting to find their way in the world. These days, light white and blue Asters have taken over the grounds, reclaiming the land and the school. Radiation monitoring equipment sits across the street, continually sampling the air.
Meanwhile, in the nineties, the need for jobs in economically impoverished places like Piketon persuaded Richardson to keep the plant open. “I remember a group of my experts that came to me and said there are some facilities that we need to get rid of…they are inefficient, and there is a newer technology,” Richardson told me. “There was a list—Piketon was on it. It was like candidate number one for closing, but I said, ‘let’s make it more efficient, these jobs are too important.’” But the slow gears of the government ground on, and local residents allege that the plant continued to contaminate their air, water, and land.
Over the years, Colley said, she has worked with six presidential administrations, dating back to Ronald Reagan, and “the Trump administration has been the least responsive.” Meanwhile, she continues her efforts at the local level; if there’s testing or work to be done in monitoring the Piketon plant, Colley finds a way in. “It’s not about the money, it is about the victims, what they have done to the workers and the community,” she told me. “And they continue to expose the community. I can’t sleep at night knowing what they are doing.”
Residents have banded together to file lawsuits over the continuing fallout from the A-Plant. The most recent, filed in September, alleges that “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, and they are responsible for unconscionably poisoning workers and the people, land, air, and water for miles around PORTS [shorthand for the Portsmouth plant] causing an increased risk of disease, fatal illnesses and death which may not be detectable for years, but may be passed down for many generations through damaged and mutated DNA.” (Belt Magazine reached out to the Department of Energy with respect to these allegations, but has not received a response.)
During the last few months of the Clinton administration, legislation known as the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act was passed and approved by Congress. It was intended to compensate workers at Portsmouth and a similar plant in Paducah, and “basically created an entitlement,” Richardson explained. The amount to be paid out to sick workers was around $150,000. In 2004, wage loss and impairment were added, so a person could receive a total benefit of $400,000. “When I left, the program faltered a little bit under the Bush administration, but it didn’t fall apart,” he said.
The entitlement program still exists. The problem, Richardson and others say, is in the burden of proof. Sick Pike County residents have to mount aggressive cases to prove their afflictions are related to the plant before their claim can be approved and accepted, which, he said, was not the intent. Richardson said the entitlement program was organized under the Department of Labor because it had more experience with worker’s compensation claims and payouts than DOE. But, according to Pike County residents I spoke with, there were lots of problems.
Evelyn Toppins worked at the A-Plant in a clerical position in the 1950s. She checked-in trucks, collected information for payroll, and did any odd job she was given. It was good money at the time. But by 2010, according to her son John, she was sick with five different kinds of cancers, including breast cancer. This, coupled with Evelyn’s two-year tenure at the A-plant, should have qualified her for compensation. But instead, her case was subject to dose reconstruction, a process of trying to reconstruct her precise exposure, which advocates say is often flawed and reliant on fuzzy memories or data that is non-existent.
Evelyn Toppins passed away in 2010. That same year, her dose reconstruction came back at thirty-nine percent, below the fifty percent exposure needed to qualify. “It sure would have been nice to have had that money when my Mom was going through this,” John Toppins said. Her surviving family members, including John’s father, would have been entitled to compensation even after her death. “I am one hundred percent certain her cancer was caused by exposure,” John said. “If we are entitled to the money, I think we should get it.”
The hills around the A-Plant are full of people who, according to the original legislation, should qualify for compensation, but who say their claims continue to be denied by the Department of Labor. John Toppins, Evelyn’s son, said a Department of Labor representative told him, “It doesn’t matter what Congress says, we have our own rules at the DOL.”
Terrie Barrie, co-founder of the Colorado-based Alliance of Nuclear Worker Advocacy Groups, has been advocating for nuclear workers at sites across the country for two decades. She said the compensation law for Piketon was a good one, but the implementation has gone wrong. “Congress intended this statute to reverse the decades-long injustice. It’s a good law. It’s a righteous law. The agencies perverted it,” Barrie said.
Barrie says the percentage of health claims approved by the DOL for Piketon is far lower than similar programs elsewhere—close to forty percent for Piketon vs. seventy percent for programs designed to help those exposed at Los Alamos, Rocky Flats,and other sites. She told me nothing short of a full-blown Congressional investigation is needed to remedy the issues with the program. “A full investigation by Congress into DOL’s implementation of the statute,” she explained. “Not just one hearing but multiple hearings. And workers themselves need to testify.”
In the meantime, what will become of the facility, and of the community that surrounds it? In 2019, an agreement was finalized to retool portions of the plant and continue nuclear production (the first phase of the project was supposed to be completed this month). Other sections of the facility provide storage for depleted uranium hexafluoride. Many of the now-unused buildings will be crushed, and the waste buried in a massive dump off McCorkle’s Ridge. The cleanup is expected to take twenty years and cost $11 billion in total, providing more jobs for the area. The irony here—that these new jobs will be to clean up messes that could have been easily avoided—is not lost on the community.
Dennis Foreman, a middle school science teacher and village council member in Piketon, said he doesn’t want the history of the A-Plant buried here. “Nobody will want to come here if it is a nuclear dump,” he said. Foreman thinks the whole complex could be transformed into something like an intermodal shipping hub. He envisions attracting Amazon to the area to re-purpose the facility as a giant distribution center, utilizing its rail and road access.
Foreman said the A-Plant’s whole history exploits Appalachia, and death is the most difficult part of its legacy. He watched his grandmother and mother die from rare cancers. Foreman’s grandmother was a cook in the now-shuttered Zahn’s Corner School, and his mother worked in the hospital in Piketon and lived downwind from the plant. The family planted a garden and ate vegetables from it for a generation. “The last week of my mother’s life, I spent sleeping on the tile floor of the same hospital my mom retired from,” Foreman said.
Someone is always dying of some mysterious cancer, Foreman said, and they have to be shipped off to a hospital in Columbus or Cincinnati in their final days, and then they die there, and their death is listed there. “The travesty of living in rural American is you don’t, according to the government record-keeping, even get to die where you are from,” Foreman said.
Vina Colley, meanwhile, continues to work the DOL’s warren of a claims process, keeping a wary eye on the A-Plant. On a recent fall day, she drove her Explorer on a rural road to the top of McCorkle’s Ridge. As dusk began to settle, plunging the valley bottom into early darkness, heavy machinery could be heard preparing a grave for 1.3 million cubic yards of radioactive material in the Pike County earth.
Colley believes, based on her research, that the pits will be so flimsy groundhogs could chew through them. And while the government contends the material will be safely stored, Colley’s research uncovered fractured bedrock that would give the radioactive material a direct line to the underground aquifer—and the potential to poison a new generation of Piketon.
So, her work continues. “When someone is lying to me, I have a determination to get to the bottom of it, and I’m done with it,” Colley said. “But this doesn’t have a bottom, it goes on and on and on.” ■
This article was co-published with 100 Days in Appalachia, an independent, non-profit digital news publication incubated at the Media Innovation Center at the West Virginia University Reed College of Media.
Kevin Williams is a freelance journalist based in Dayton, Ohio.
Cover image of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant circa 1970. Public domain image from the U.S. Department of Energy.
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