PIKETON — U.S. Reps and county officials met at the Square at Piketon on Friday to discuss the present cleanup and future development at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
U.S. Reps Tim Ryan (OH-13) and Marcy Kaptur (OH-09) first visited the A-Plant before meeting with representatives of the Scioto Valley Council of Governments and Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative.
Among those present was Pike County Commissioner Jerry Miller, who said conversation primarily focused on finding funds to middle a new Scioto Valley Local Schools District middle school.
Having representation from Washington to visit was a major step, Miller said, in getting answers and the community fears of radiation seeping beyond the plant’s 3,700 acres to the forefront.
“There are many, many programs; many, many agencies that can potentially contribute to the construction and funding of a new school,” he said, the commissioners part of SVCOG with the Pike County Health District, the Village of Piketon, SVLSD, Seal Township, and Scioto Township.
“It is difficult for a community like Pike County to navigate those agencies to find those buckets of money, so the fact that Marcy Kaptur and Tim Ryan are here, along with representation from DOE (Department of Energy) to help us identify that; that is a big step.”
The spread of contaminants such as neptunium and americium made its way to Zahn’s Corner Middle School in 2017 and 2018. Those levels, although described as “very low” by the Department of Energy, saw the SVLSD Board of Education vote to close the school in May 2019.
Now three years later, students that would be attending the middle school are instead split between Jasper Elementary School and Piketon High School.
This makes securing funds to build a new school all the more pressing, Miller said, a task that is not easy but one he is optimistic in its possibility.
“When those isotopes were detected, the school board had no choice but to protect the community’s children,” he said.
The levels at which the isotopes were detected did not meet the threshold of “actionable level,” but the commissioner noted that DOE also sets what constitutes actionable.
“I think if my sons or daughters attended there, I would have done everything possible to pull them out,” he said.
For a new school, Miller believes the likelihood for one large sum to cover it is not likely. If it were to come, however, the county would defer whatever funds it receives to the school district.
The chances of that happening are low due to the DOE findings saying levels of contamination were below actionable levels. Due to the department’s findings, Miller said the state will not get involved.
According to the DOE, the sampling conducted by the Savannah River National Laboratory “show no radioactivity detected above naturally occurring levels, and no cause for public health concern.”
“I think the state is passing the buck,” said Miller.
The plant may no longer produce weapons-grade uranium, but it still employees more than 2,000 workers throughout the region in its cleanup.
Demolition of the X-326 process building is nearly 60% complete as of the latest, yet it will be years before the entire demolition and remediation to be finally complete.
When that day comes, Miller said redevelopment is paramount to retain those jobs.
“When you remove those jobs from an economically-depressed area like southern Ohio, it has an immediate and substantial impact,” he said.
The infrastructure- electric grid, waste water treatment, water treatment, and more- is there, yet cannot be realized due to the present radiation.
Miller said the recent news of Newpoint Gas, LLC considering building a power generation facility fueled by clean hydrogen was a welcome start in those goals.
“Hopefully when one company takes that leap of faith and locates here, it should generate more opportunities and set the stage for other companies to participate,” he said.
Among topics not discussed was the payment in lieu of taxes agreement, or PILT. Pike County receives funds through this agreement from the federal government since no property taxes are paid on the property.
Ryan called on the DOE previously to change that sum to $20 million, but no further updates have come to pass. Securing those funds, however, he said remains a priority.
Investment has come recently to the plant in the form of $500,000 towards SODI’s Heartland Green Energy and Manufacturing Valley Initiative. Another $467 million is going towards the A-plant cleanup, an increase of $36.7 million over the prior fiscal year.
Contact Patrick Keck at email@example.com or by phone at 740-947-2149, ext. 300431 and follow him on Twitter @pkeckreporter.