Op-Ed

Will toxic dump ever be safe?

A worker used a bulldozer to fill a trench at Maxey Flats, a nuclear burial site in Fleming County.
A worker used a bulldozer to fill a trench at Maxey Flats, a nuclear burial site in Fleming County. Herald-Leader

The article on Maxey Flats indicates that our state government is so concerned about the welfare of Fleming County and its citizens.

But to not reflect the tremendous effort by hardworking and honest citizens of the Hillsboro area like John Hay and Nancy Cooper Powell is irresponsible.

These two, along with others, tried to get the local, state and federal regulators and agencies to listen to their safety concerns about Maxey Flats. They were laughed at, rejected and scrutinized as ignorant contemptible hillbillies.

Other concerned citizens formed the Maxey Flats Radiation Protection Association in 1974, testifying before local, state and federal agencies and waging a national media campaign to close down the site.

As a child, I remember the area as the article describes: a flat-top ridge rising 350 feet above neighboring villages at the valley bottoms called Ringos Mills. This area was settled by hardworking farmers and lumbermen. This location was formed from an ice-age aberration of very rich soil on a mountaintop.

In 1962, local Fleming County leaders and the state of Kentucky agreed with the federal government to locate a nuclear waste disposal in the area. Local leaders were ecstatic, thinking the county would get nuclear plants producing hundreds of jobs. State officials developed tendinitis from patting themselves on their backs for their success.

Then the state signed a 25-year lease with Nuclear Engineering Company to operate the 252-acre site. NECO started to bury the toxic waste in May, 1963. About 85 percent of it was low-level radioactive waste and the remainder was high-level waste, including plutonium. There were 51 trenches 650 feet long at the start and the waste was supposed to be dumped into these trenches.

Without going into details, 5 million cubic feet of radioactive material were dumped on Maxey Flats, making it the largest such waste disposal in the nation. There were several concerns about safety:

1) Any person with common sense would never dig a disposal area on the top of a mountain and expect it not to leak. Gravity will defile the water in the radioactive trenches.

2) Each trench was to be covered with 10 feet of soil or rock material; some trenches were covered with only five inches of soil.

3) Numerous articles such as watches, surgical tools and miscellaneous radioactive instruments were found in the bottom valley farm branches. Trucks were just plain dumping material over the side of the mountain and not into the trenches.

4) Fleming, at this time, was the second-biggest dairy county in the state. Local farmers were distraught that their cows were aborting, were found dead, were grinding their teeth, and some exhibited skin depigmentation.

Where do you think the milk went from these dairy farms? To Huntington, W. Va., the Kroger milk plant in Winchester or the Spring Grove plant in Morehead.

Where do you think the defiled water went? From Rock Lick Creek to the Licking River to become drinking water for Northern and Central Kentucky.

While this was going on, the state and local agencies were constantly stating that Maxey Flats was safe and there were no health hazards.

In 1977, when the state finally had proof that plutonium was escaping from the trenches, it agreed to close Maxey Flats.

Not one leader took responsibility. As usual the finger pointing was contentious among the state, local and federal governments. No nuclear plants had moved to Kentucky and we are left with a nuclear slop jar on sacred grounds.

So far, it has cost $60 million to somewhat clean up and another $1 million per year to maintain and monitor.

Therefore, it does not make one feel warm and fuzzy that this year the Radiation Health Branch of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services proclaimed that Maxey Flats does not pose a threat to public health.

The article reported that the state has installed a key pad entrance and remote cameras at the site. I really do not know of anyone in their right mind who would want to enter this cesspool of radioactive plutonium.

To truly learn from our mistakes, we must accept our failures, forgive those who oppose our views and trust in God that justice will prevail. Nothing can change Maxey Flats as it is now. It is a nuclear slop jar and will remain that way forever. Sad, sad, sad.

Lucien Royse of Georgetown is a Fleming County native and a retired business executive.

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