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The End of Secrecy

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Protestors at Willey Road site entrance in 1980ís (5842-442).
Protestors at Willey Road site entrance in the 1980s

During most of Fernaldís production era, the general public paid little attention to what was happening inside the secured fence line, and site workers were focused on one thing:  producing high quality uranium metal better, faster, cheaper and safer than its competition. Fernald was on the leading edge of manufacturing improvements and innovative technologies. The workforce, a unique combination of highly skilled tradesmen and professionals with expertise in chemical and metallurgical processes, took pride in the quality of their products and their service to the nationís defense program. 

The era of quiet operations and minimal public interest ended abruptly in 1984, when the Department of Energy (DOE) reported that nearly 300 pounds of enriched uranium oxide had been released to the environment from a Plant 9 dust collector system.  That same year, DOE also reported that in 1981, three off-property wells south of the site were contaminated with uranium. The impact of nearly four decades of uranium metal production suddenly became the center of public controversy. 

Residents living near the site formed a new citizenís interest group, the Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health (FRESH), to closely monitor Fernaldís activities. Years later, the grass-roots organization would participate in the decision-making process that leads to final cleanup solutions for the site. 

In 1984, Fernald-area residents filed a class action lawsuit seeking damages for emotional distress and decreased property values. The suit was settled in 1989 after a summary trial. DOE agreed to pay $73 million for emotional distress, medical monitoring, residential real property diminution and legal and administrative costs, and an additional $5 million for commercial and industrial real property diminution claims for property within a five-mile radius of the Fernald site. 

Two events in early 1986 attracted further media scrutiny: the unauthorized venting of two waste storage silos and a crack in the Pilot Plant vessel. Suddenly, reporters from popular national news programs such as 60 Minutes and 20/20, as well as Britain, Canada, Japan and Germany, were interested in the Fernald site.

When public concerns about contamination problems peaked, people demanded answers to questions about off-site groundwater contamination, air emissions and worker safety and health. However, site management was unprepared to handle the concerns -- there was no public information about Fernaldís operations, no forums to discuss issues with concerned citizens and no site contacts to call if there was a question. 

The heavy media coverage and citizensí mistrust of site management and concerns about safety and health practices continued to spread through the surrounding communities. In 1988, two nearby camps for children closed, citing concerns about Fernald and attributing reduced attendance to the negative publicity. 

One contributing factor to the controversy surrounding Fernald and other weapons complex facilities was the lack of environmental, safety and health regulations. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that environmental concerns raised national consciousness, and consequently the U.S. government and general populace began to understand the industrial revolutionís effect on the environment. Federal and state regulators began investigating reports of serious environmental and safety problems at nuclear weapons facilities, including the Fernald site.

Fernald management came to realize that isolating themselves from the community, as in the past, was not the answer.  Steps were taken to establish contact with the public and create public information channels so people could learn about site operations.  DOE opened several reading rooms to make site documents available to the public and started holding public meetings to break the ice.  The early meetings were often contentious and accusatory, with the public demanding answers from site officials who were unprepared to handle the hostility.   

In 1986, DOE awarded Fernaldís managing and operating contract to Westinghouse Material Company of Ohio, replacing National Lead of Ohio after 33 years.  Once on board, Westinghouse quickly initiated several community relations programs, including small group roundtables to openly discuss topics of public interest with site personnel.  For the first time, management and technical leaders began a regular, two-way exchange of information and questions with local citizens groups, township leaders and residents on the cleanup challenges facing the Fernald site.  

But building relationships and earning trust and respect after decades of secrecy and controversy takes time and consistent performance.  In 1992, one year after Congress approved the closure of Fernaldís uranium production mission and authorized the siteís new cleanup mission, DOE awarded a first-of-its-kind environmental remediation contract to FERMCO, later renamed Fluor Fernald. At that time, the site was involved in the remedial investigation/feasibility study, a lengthy, complicated investigation to determine the nature and extent of contamination and determine specific cleanup plans.  

At first, DOE and Fluor followed a regulatory mandated public review process that allowed opportunities for public input but did little to break down long-standing communications barriers or build trust.  Local residents were concerned that key decisions, which would ultimately affect their lives, were being made behind closed doors or with limited public input.  They insisted on more frequent, face-to-face interaction with Fernald decision-makers.  As a result, DOE and Fluor adopted a new strategy for public participation based on the premise that people have a desire to participate in decisions that affect their lives.  Fernald was entering a new phase of communications, and would later be recognized as a national leader in effective public participation.


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Together, DOE and Fluor Fernald were committed to safely restoring the 
Fernald site to an end state that serves the needs of the community.