The Columbus Dispatch
Pike County asking feds to increase payment for nuclear clean-up site
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. firstname.lastname@example.org @Patrickacooley