HILLSBORO — The flat-topped ridge, rising 350 feet above the neighboring valley bottoms, is surrounded by hardwoods. Deer, wild turkeys, red foxes and even a bobcat have been spotted here. But after more than a decade of relative quiet, this peaceful plateau will soon be the site of a new round of construction activity.
Beginning early next year and continuing through late 2015, a contractor will put the final cap or layer over the nuclear-waste site known as Maxey Flats.
The cap will cover the 52-acre restricted area where low-level nuclear waste was disposed of between 1963 and 1977, said Shawn Cecil, commonwealth project coordinator in the state Division of Waste Management.
"It will be a final remedial step, but we're not shutting off the lights or closing the door," Cecil said. "We're going to be watching over Maxey Flats for long time."
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That's because the stuff buried at Maxey Flats will remain radioactive for thousands of years and, according to a 1995 court-ordered consent decree, the state is obligated to maintain and monitor the site. (A March report prepared by the Radiation Health Branch of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services concluded that Maxey Flats "does not presently pose a threat to public health.")
The final cap will consist of geosynthetic materials covered with topsoil that will be seeded with drought-resistant grass. The state owns more than 1,000 acres here; that buffering acreage and the depth at which the waste is buried protects neighbors from radiation. Soil from that buffer land will be used for the final cap, so heavy equipment for excavation and dump trucks for dirt-hauling will be kept on the property and off the two-lane public roads.
"It was a conscious decision to avoid that," Cecil said.
Under a tentative schedule, initial work will begin in February. The timetable calls for the cap to be completed by October, although that could change, Cecil said.
The Walker Company, a Mount Sterling firm with experience in landfill closures, will be the contractor for the job. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accepted a design plan for the final cap in late October.
Maxey Flats, located about 10 miles northwest of Morehead, was once one of six sites in the nation for the disposal of low-level nuclear waste. Kentucky received permission from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1962 to create the site. At the time, state officials apparently thought Maxey Flats could be the lure that would bring a then-growing nuclear industry to Kentucky.
Beginning in 1963, Kentucky licensed a private operator to dump radioactive waste from government agencies, medical research facilities, hospitals, universities and industries. Some 4.7 million cubic feet of material was disposed there.
The waste included heavy metals like arsenic, nickel and lead; 533,000 pounds of uranium and thorium, or ores containing them; and 950 pounds of "special nuclear material," such as plutonium and enriched uranium.
There was assorted junk, too: shoes, gloves and laboratory tools contaminated in the course of nuclear research.
But the hoped-for nuclear-industry boom didn't materialize. Instead, Maxey Flats became one of the state's biggest and costliest environmental headaches.
Problems began to appear in 1972, when monitoring by state health officials revealed that water contaminated by radiation was migrating beyond the site's borders.
By 1975, Maxey Flats had become a major environmental controversy. Local citizens formed a watchdog group demanding that the site be cleaned up and closed.
The leaks persuaded the state to close Maxey Flats in 1977. In 1986, the site was added to the federal government's Superfund list of the nation's worst hazardous-waste sites.
By 2003, an interim cap had been put over the landfill to prevent water from getting into the waste trenches. Those trenches have an average depth of 15 to 16 feet below the interim cap's surface. Over the last 11 years, the material in the landfill has naturally settled so that the landfill is now ready for construction of the final cap.
The cost, including design, purchase of additional buffer land, and construction is $35 million. Funding included $18 million from the state's Capital and Emergency trust accounts, and $17 million in bonds approved by the Kentucky legislature in 2012.
In the meantime, public protests died down and Maxey Flats drifted out of the headlines.
"It's very rarely mentioned," said Fleming County Judge-Executive Larry Foxworthy. "When I first went into office in 2003, there was quite a bit of talk about it. But since the state had decided they're going to do this final cap ... there just really hasn't been a lot of public comment about it."
Foxworthy said his office has not received any citizen complaints, "and usually this is where they come if there is some type of a problem."
Today, the state keeps an operations and maintenance staff of six at the site five days a week. Security measures have been improved with remote cameras and a keypad entrance, said Dwayne Price, emergency management director for Fleming County.
If there is a lesson to be learned from Maxey Flats, Foxworthy said, it's "don't let a nuclear waste site come to your county. That's the best advice I could give anybody.
"But it is what it is. It's there, it's going to be there, and I'm really glad the state has agreed to do this final closure to make sure the people in this area are protected."