The Columbus Dispatch

Pike County asking feds to increase payment for nuclear clean-up site

- Patrick Cooley

The communitie­s near a former uranium enrichment plant in Pike County and the nearby landfill that will store its waste are asking the U.S. Department of Energy for more money.

The federal government provides the municipali­ties surroundin­g the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon with around $47,000 a year to offset the loss of taxable land. The compensati­on is known as a “payment in lieu of taxes” or PILT, and is divided between the Pike County commission­ers, Seal Township, Scioto Township, the Scioto Valley School District, and the Pike County Career Technology Center.

Community leaders consider the payments a pittance compared to the damage the site has caused. The surroundin­g communitie­s have experience­d higher than normal cancer rates and a school near the plant was shuttered when radioactiv­e isotopes were found in nearby air, soil and vegetation.

The Pike County towns consider themselves victims of the lingering toxic legacy of the Cold War. Uranium was enriched for nuclear weapons at the Piketon plant from 1954 to 2001. In a request to renegotiat­e the PILT compensati­on, community leaders argue that they’ve lost valuable industrial land and believe their residents suffered from the radioactiv­e material left at the site.

“It’s difficult for communitie­s to overcome that stigma,” said Jennifer Chandler, councilwom­an for the village of Piketon and the president of the Scioto Valley-piketon Area Council of Government­s. “Landfills like this are a deterrent to private investment. In the past when communitie­s have faced these kinds of issues, (the energy department) compensate­s the community with special burden payments.”

The energy department declared the land agricultur­al when the site was built in the 1950s and still relies on that designatio­n, but Zack Space, president of the Sunny Creek Horizons advocacy group and communicat­ions firm, said farmers can no longer use the land.

The annual payments are “woefully inadequate given this is the best industrial ground in the county,” Space said. “The site is being cleaned up to industrial standards. It isn’t ever going to be used to grow corn again.”

Officials from the energy department are engaged in the process, Space said, and he’s optimistic the two sides can work out a better arrangemen­t.

An energy department representa­tive did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Open air demolition began in May over the objections of the surroundin­g communitie­s.

Zahn’s Middle School, which is downwind of the former enrichment plant, sits empty and unused after radiation was detected near the school. Radioactiv­e isotopes were found in groundwate­r near the plant between 2017 and 2019.

On those grounds, Space said the communitie­s deserve special burdens compensati­on, not just payments to make up for lost tax revenue.

“We have a massive landfill they’ve constructe­d in close proximity to the population centers of Pike County,” Space said. “There are people who live 1,000 feet away from this landfill. That is unique, unusual, and cumbersome because it will require years of monitoring and years of public relations to convince investors it’s safe to invest here.”

Federal officials said last year that the radiation was not a threat to the middle school itself.

The Pike County communitie­s have allies in U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who wrote to the energy department asking the agency to increase its payments to the Pike County towns near the clean-up site.

“The loss of tax revenue and special burdens, including the need to replace Zahn’s Corner Middle School, requires immediate action by the Department,” the lawmakers wrote.

Ryan and Brown have been working with the community for at least a year, Ryan’s spokesman, Caty Payette, said.

“We strongly believe that this community needs the money for their service to the nation, and to weather the fallout of that closing and what that’s meant for the local community and their economy,” she said. @Patrickaco­oley

 ?? JOSHUA A. BICKEL/COLUMBUS DISPATCH ?? An excavator at the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon. Crews began open-air demolition of the plant in May against the objections of some local residents.
JOSHUA A. BICKEL/COLUMBUS DISPATCH An excavator at the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon. Crews began open-air demolition of the plant in May against the objections of some local residents.

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