This gray Illinois prairie has been home to coal and crops, but it was something alien in the soil that gave rise to 10 years of litigation and a legacy that could linger for centuries.
Deep in the Earth among tons of waste in a long-closed dump, a radioactive substance called tritium is leaking from dirt trenches in which it was buried.
Although experts say this form of hydrogen from nuclear power plants, factories and research laboratories is not enough to pose any danger, the leak illustrates the potential risks of such dumps.
“Nobody knows how to safely bury hazardous waste for the length of time the waste will be hazardous,” argues Hugh Kaufman, a government whistle-blower who now works at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s all supposition and prayer.”
Others say the industry has come a long way since the late 1960s, when the low-level nuclear waste dump opened in Sheffield. Still, scientists concede that although tests to determine the suitability of the Sheffield area were considered sufficient then, they would be terribly inadequate by current standards.
“In the mid-'60s, not much was known about the regulation of low-level waste disposal,” said Dave Ed, senior nuclear scientist at the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety. “We’ve learned an awful lot in 20 years. We’ve learned before you OK a site . . . you should do a very thorough investigation. We’ve learned it after the fact in Sheffield.”
“By today’s standards, that site shouldn’t or wouldn’t be used,” said Ed, noting that the soil is too sandy and gravelly, allowing water to move distances in six months that experts originally thought would take hundreds of years.
Ed says the dump has a mixed record. “It didn’t contain the radioactivity as predicted,” he said. “But it continues to isolate the radioactivity from people.”
That does not satisfy local activist Stanley Gingrich, who heads a citizens group that has opposed the dump as well as an adjacent one filled with non-nuclear hazardous waste that is also leaking.
“It has to be one of the biggest blights in this country,” he said.
Even those who believe the operators were conscientious say it does not do a community any good to be near two leaking dumps.
“It’s definitely been a deficit to us,” said businessman Bob Sprowls, adding: “Like anybody else, I don’t know what’s out there. . . . I’m not smart enough to know what the real danger is.”
The 20-acre dump, located about 3 1/2 miles from this west-central town of 1,100, is in a former strip-mining area now dotted with farms.
It holds about 3.3 million cubic feet of low-level radioactive waste, including contaminated tools and clothes from hospitals and nuclear power plants, 100 pounds of plutonium and uranium and parts of a dismantled nuclear reactor--all buried in 22 trenches.
The dump was closed in 1978 when the state refused to allow the operators, then Nuclear Engineering Co., to bury waste in a new trench. The state said tritium, which also is used in most modern bombs, was leaking and the ground was too sandy.
Nuclear Engineering decided to leave.
The company “put the keys to the gate on the table in one of the sheds and sent us a telegram saying, ‘We have finished our work at the site. Since you own it, it’s yours again,’ ” said Clifford Weaver, a private attorney who represented the state.
The state filed a $97-million lawsuit, charging that the company had broken its 99-year lease. A judge ordered the company, which in 1981 became US Ecology Inc., to remain there until trial.
A decade later, an out-of-court settlement was reached. US Ecology will commit more than $8 million to test, monitor and maintain the area, remain there until 1998 and build a new 4 1/2-foot-thick clay cover over the dump.
State officials insist that the agreement is fair. Gingrich disagrees.
“We think our community was sold out not having any input in that settlement,” he said. “Eight million dollars and they’re able to walk away in 10 years. . . . We think $8 million is peanuts to take care of that site.”
As part of the 1988 agreement, US Ecology also purchased a 170-acre buffer zone and built a fence around it after it was discovered that tritium had moved beyond the dump into nearby ground water and a lake.
That angers Gingrich. The state’s “Band-Aid has been to allow them to buy more property where it’s leaking,” he said. “We can’t say there’s devalued land next to it because they bought the land. . . . It can move to the end of town and they can continue to buy the land. Can they buy the town eventually?”
But Ed says the land has been thoroughly studied, and experts believe that the leak can be contained within the buffer zone until the radioactivity decays. Most, he said, will be gone within 100 years.
Ed also said that the highest levels of tritium, which leaked because earthen covers did not prevent rain from seeping into the radioactive material, amount to only 10% of the maximum the government allows to be released to unrestricted areas.
“The levels we’re talking about, you can’t build bombs,” he explained, noting that the same was true of the plutonium, which is thoroughly dispersed.
However, the plutonium and uranium will remain hundreds of years, and though it is unlikely that they will move, people must be prevented from digging into the waste. “The site has to be monitored and maintained for a hundred years at least,” he said.
Although one legal battle is over, a 9-year-old lawsuit is pending over US Ecology’s 45-acre non-nuclear hazardous waste site. Chemicals are leaking from the 4.3 million cubic feet of waste, and some of the chemicals have apparently mixed with the tritium.
US Ecology also is spending more than $1.3 million to study the scope of that problem and seek remedies.
Keeping Town Informed
Meanwhile, the company started holding community forums last year to keep the town informed of its work.
“The site is a mystery to a lot of people,” said Mark Cade, the site’s post operations manager. “The word radioactive puts everybody on guard. . . . By being more open than we had in the past, it would give them an opportunity for a better understanding of what goes on out there.”
“They’re trying to communicate more than they used to,” confirmed Mayor Jack Weber. . . . (Before,) they did things they didn’t tell us about. . . . The public relations is better now.”