Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

July 15, 2013

The final stage

After 27 years, cleanup of Maxey Flats nearing an end

The Independent

ASHLAND — A half century after the Maxey Flats Nuclear Disposal site in Fleming County first began accepting waste, the final stage of a massive cleanup of the site will soon begin. For residents who live near the disposal site about 10 miles north of Morehead, the day when the site was declared safe has been a long time in coming.

From 1963 until 1977, low-level nuclear waste was deposited in unlined trenches at the site. In 1986, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  placed the site on the National Priorities List because of contaminated soil, surface water and ground water resulting from facility operations. The cleanup has quietly been taking place during the 27 years since then.

In a press conference at Maxey Flats last Wednesday, Gov. Steve Beshear announced the approval of a $35.2 million funding request to cap the waste site. The governor said $18 million of the funds will come from the Capital and Emergency trust accounts and $17 million is from general bonds. The trust accounts were created by money from private companies that deposited nuclear waste at the site.

The EPA many years ago  directed the companies to set up a trust for the future closure of the site, Kentucky Division of Waste Management Director Tony Hatton said. The requirement prevented the federal and state governments from footing the bulk of the bill for the cleanup and properly held the companies that deposited waste at Maxey Flats accountable for the environmental damage that waste caused

The final cap

At Wednesday’s press conference, Governor Beshear said, “We're celebrating the next phase of the environmental challenge at Maxey Flats. The Environmental Protection Agency has approved the final cap to be put into place and the General Assembly has approved the funds.”

Work on the cap will begin in 2014 and will take about three years to complete, the governor said. The final cap will cover nearly 60 acres, the surface area of about 45 football fields including both end zones. An anticipated 1 million-plus cubic feet of fill material will be required for the cap.

The cleanup of the site has been ongoing in steps for years,  according to Environmental Technologist 3 Tom Stewart. First, there were studies to determine the best options for the facility. In 1988, EPA emergency response officials solidified 286,000 gallons of radioactive contaminated trench water.

In March 1991, the response team disposed of the solidified water in an underground trench and installed 30 acres of a temporary above-ground impermeable sheet to prevent infiltration of rain.

Between 1992 and 1995, there was lengthy negotiations about who should incur the costs of the cleanups. It was finally decided there would be a list compiled of those who dumped at the site. A demaximus list, which consisted of 50 companies and individuals, included those who dumped massive amounts at the site and the deminimus list, of more than 300, included those who had dumped at some point.

In September 1998, Phase I officially began. During this phase, a concrete bunker was constructed to dispose of the solidified waste. Approximately 900,000 gallons of contaminated water was processed in this phase.

Following completion of Phase I, construction of an interim cap began. The cap was put in place to prevent water infiltration. A groundwater channel to redirect water away from the waste also was put in place.

In 2007, a five-year review from the EPA showed the site to be “functioning as intended.”

In April of this year, the Kentucky General Assembly approved more than $35 million to cover the funding of a permanent cap.

Before the cap can be applied, Hatton said several steps need to be taken. First, 600,000 to one million cubic feet of soil will need to be placed over the interim cap to shape the land. The next step will be to add a geo-grid to help alleviate sliding and tearing on the cap before adding more soil.  A geo-synthetic clay liner will be added. After the liner is added, a drainage layer will be put into place to drain water away from the cap.

Hatton said he hopes the beginning steps will begin by the end of the year.

Buying more property

Hatton also said the approved funding will be used to purchase land in the surrounding area “to add more distance between the people and the site, as well as to use the soil for the project.”

“We’re going to make this as safe as humans can make it,” promised State Rep. Mike Denham, D-Maysville, who represents the area of Maxey Flats. 

Needless to say, the cleanup of the state’s largest Superfund site has been expensive. In 1991, the project was expected to cost $50 million, but Shawn Cecil, a geologist and environmental scientist with the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, thinks that projection will turn out to be low.

Cecil said Kentucky has been spending about $400,000 a year to maintain the site, which includes some risky monitoring of radioactive water in dozens of sump wells. The entire site covers 770 acres, but waste was deposited only on about 27 acres.

Originally, officials thought it might take as long as a century for the waste to fully settle into a stable position. But it turned out that it’s only taken about three decades, which was at the short end of estimates at the time, said Cecil.

A forever project

 Thirty years ago, the contamination at Maxey Flats made national headlines and greatly concerned residents throughout the region. But stories about Maxey Flats have waned over the years, and many young residents have either never heard of Maxey Flats or mostly forgotten about it. But state and federal environmental officials have never forgotten about Maxey Flats, nor have they ceased working to clean it up.

With the completion of the cap in three years, cleanup of Maxey Flats essentially will be finished. But as Cecil is quick to point out, monitoring of the site will go on “forever.”