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A Park Grows at Fernald

By Joe Wessels · May 13th, 2009 · Wessels

I had an outside chance of wandering into a two-headed deer-cow hybrid that could fly. But I ventured onto the Fernald Preserve anyway.

When I was growing up out in northwest Hamilton County, Fernald was like our own private Area 51 far away from Roswell, N.M. We’d poke around the outskirts of the Department of Energy (DOE) property as teenagers, and once I was turned back by a guard with a machine gun. They could have shot me on sight, I imagined, and sent my body in a fortified train car to Yucca Mountain out West.

The former Fernald Uranium Processing Plant went from Super Fund cleanup site to what’s now a nature preserve, complete with a refreshingly balanced and frank museum inside a $3 million visitors center. When it opened in August it became the first platinum-certified LEED building in Ohio.

The processing plant opened in May 1951 after the government bought local farm land or, if the owners balked, took it by eminent domain. After residents began to realize the major environmental contamination the plant caused, protests ensued and Fernald closed in 1989. A $4.4 billion cleanup began shortly afterwards.

There is something peculiar about a cabinet-level department of the U.S. government charged with maintaining our nuclear weapons stockpile and radioactive waste disposal operating what’s essentially a park. No Smokey the Bear here. He got cancer and died.

But this park features parking spots for hybrid vehicles, recycling bins everywhere and an environmentally friendly visitors center that’s equipped with high-speed wireless Internet, a community room for groups to use for free and geothermal climate control.

Ponds dotting the property were created when contaminated radioactive soil was dug up and removed. The less toxic soil was piled into waste disposal mounds still easily spotted beyond the ponds, grassy flat land and geese flying overhead.

Sue Walpole, preserve spokesperson, says visitors are asked to stay on the three miles of trails unless they’re escorted. The ground isn’t unsafe, she says, but the DOE is trying to return the area to its natural roots. Three more miles of trails are expected to open by October.

“We are trying to keep the restoration going,” Walpole said. “If we had people going wherever, that wouldn’t be good.”

My family joined the class-action lawsuit against the DOE because I grew up less than five miles from the plant, so it’s bittersweet to step on this land. Emotions have subsided, but memories persist: Fernald contamination was cited as the reason the Archdiocese of Cincinnati closed my beloved Fort Scott Camps, where I spent part of seven summers as a kid.

Apparently I’m not alone. Walpole says residents — many who lost loved ones to cancer and other illnesses directly associated with the plant’s release of radioactive material into the environment — and Fernald retirees visit the property. Some get emotional.

“I have seen that,” she says, adding that one security guard has come back six times to show family and friends the library, where old photos are archived.

He and others have been known to break down while there. There’s so much pain associated with what’s now a beautiful corner of the planet.

Lisa Crawford, president of FRESH (Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health), which led the charge to close and clean up the site, says she’s pleased with the preserve.

“I am very pleased with the progress we have made,” she says.

Crawford and her group still keep a close eye on the cleanup process, which will continue for another 10 years through the treatment of water in the aquifer.

“We still pay attention,” she says. “We have come a lot further than other (radioactive waste sites).”

That’s good. No need to go to a park and leave glowing unless it’s from the smile on your face.

CONTACT JOE WESSELS: joe@joewessels.net



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