The land around the Fernald uranium processing plant in southwestern Ohio is rich enough to grow most anything. But for the plant’s neighbors the standing joke is that pumpkins are the crop to raise: “They don’t need a candle at Halloween.” The joke reflects the bitterness people in this normally conservative part of Ohio feel over the radioactive waste exposure they have received from the plant. But the joke also reflects their willingness to fight a system that, as the Department of Energy’s Joe LaGrone acknowledged, put production over everything. To the plant’s neighbors, especially FRESH (Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health), it was a source of pride when last year the Environmental Policy Institute announced that the government had spent more money on cleanup at Fernald than at any other site in the country.
From a distance nothing looks more benign than the thirty-eight-year-old Fernald Feed Materials Production Center. FMPC seems almost lost in the rolling Ohio countryside. Back in 1951, when the government paid nine local farmers $500,000 for the land, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers general observed, “There are no cemeteries to relocate, no schools to be affected.” That sense of peacefulness still prevails. There is nothing formidable about the low, flat buildings that make up most of FMPC. Even its water tower, which recently had its red and white checkerboard colors changed to blue and white, looks innocent. It is not surprising that local residents often rented land near FMPC for garden plots or that newcomers to the area thought FMPC produced pet food. You have to drive slowly to notice the yellow warning signs posted on FMPC’s fences, and you have to know what you are looking for to pick out the leaking K-65 concrete silos that contain waste from the World War II Manhattan Project....
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