||2. Removal of contamination
|High costs dim prospects
External contamination feared
"The Starmet site is heavily contaminated."
Stephen Roberson (41), environmental analyist,
and his colleague Christopher Pyatt (39),
site manager, both employed by the state
of Massachusetts, looked at each other over
a map of the company grounds. "The only
question is, where do we get the money to
clean it up?"
I met Roberson and Pyatt in Wilmington, Massachusetts,
at the Northwest Branch of the Massachusetts
Department of Environmental Protection. The
two are charged with handling the problem
of radioactive contamination at Starmet Corporation
(formerly, Nuclear Metals Inc.) located in
An estimated $10 million
"The removal of sludge containing DU
and other contaminants in the holding basin
from 1997 to 1998 was a start. However, it
will take more money to remove sludge from
Cranberry Bog and contaminated groundwater
and soil from under the former holding basin,"
Roberson said reflectively.
Roughly $10 million is the estimate of the
Department of Environmental Protection. Depending
on how far underground the contamination
has spread, the cost could be up to five
As the pollutor, Starmet should pay for the
clean-up, but a drop in military contracts
in recent years has drastically reduced business.
Its staff is under 100, less than a sixth
of its peak numbers. Neither is the state
government able to fund the project. The
company can either rely on the army, as it
did for the first clean-up, or be designated
one of the country's worst contamination
sites and become eligible for the Environmental
Protection Agency's Superfund.
However, though Massachusetts congressmen
and senators approached the military about
the matter, "The military's pretty tight
with its money," says Roberson.
The situation is complicated by the resistance
of some Concord residents to having a local
property designated a Superfund site. "They're
proud of Concord's history and culture, and
they want to protect its image as an affluent
residential area. Superfund designation would
ruin its image and decrease property values."
Roberson and Pyatt have explained the state's
position at town meetings and other local
gatherings. While basically respecting the
choice of the residents, the state's stance
is, "If the clean-up goes ahead, no
one will care where the money comes from."
"Nothing is more dangerous than leaving
toxic pollutants in the environment. If they
leak outside the company' property, we can't
let the town's image stand in the way of
a clean-up," adds Pyatt.
Toothless national regulations
How did Startmet contaminate the environment
to this extent?
"Because it handles nuclear materials,
its business license was controlled by the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which
also regulated and monitored its daily activities.
However, there were no substantial regulations
until 1985. Starmet was basically on its
Roberson's explanation reminded me of the
criticality accident in September 1999 at
JCO's nuclear fuel processing facility in
Tokai Mura, Ibaraki Prefecture. The failure
of Japan's Science and Technology Agency
to apprehend that facility's neglect of proper
procedures was similar to the NRC's indulgence
The Department of Environmental Protection
first began to investigate Starmet in 1985.
The initial investigation was not of radioactivity
contamination from DU but of chemical contamination
of well water on the premises. No full-scale
radioactive contamination study was performed
In one test, DU in the groundwater around
the former holding basin measured 87,000
micrograms per liter, roughly 3,100 times
the state limit for tap water (28 micrograms
per liter). Soil DU concentration averages
about 460 milligrams per kilogram, or 23
times the state's post-clean-up standard
of 20 milligrams per kilogram. Contaminated
groundwater is already leaching from the
holding basin and moving rapidly toward the
property's edge near the Assabet River.
"It was seven or eight years from the
time the demand was first made until the
sludge-and only the sludge-was removed. We can't let it take that long
this time." As they spoke, alarm tensed
the faces of Roberson and Pyatt.
"Our duty is to protect the health of
the residents," say Christopher Pyatt
(left) and Stephen Roberson. (Wilmington,