PARKS, Armstrong County -- From the road, it looks like any fenced-in patch of trees and overgrown grass. Passersby have to look closely to notice the signs warning of radiation, or to see the Homeland Security guards patrolling with rifles slung over their backs.
Debbie Secreto lives in the Kiskimere neighborhood of 50 homes that borders the site, translated in bureaucrat-speak as the Parks Township Shallow Land Disposal Area. To her, it's the old NUMEC nuclear waste site, a field where she played as a child -- a field that later became Exhibit A in a lawsuit alleging carcinogenic side effects, and now begins its latest chapter as a Cold War relic bringing 21st-century concerns to the surface.
The guards arrived in May, a following of protocol after cleanup of the nuclear waste buried there discovered greater numbers of "complex" elements like plutonium and uranium than were anticipated. The Army Corps of Engineers, which was leading the cleanup, halted operations and asked for a federal review of whether it was the best agency to continue the job.
Can they tell the public why such a level of security is needed?
"No," said Butch Graham, Army Corps commander of the Pittsburgh district.
A decision on what agency takes over the 10-year reclamation is expected by the end of the month, according to one Washington, D.C., official not authorized to discuss the classified information.
Until then, residents living near the Kiski Valley site are unsure of what danger could possibly warrant such security and secrecy. Some trade theories on worst-case scenarios or resort to gallows humor, giving driving tours to visitors and telling them, "If you see a puff of smoke, put the window up."
Army Corps officials insist procedures are in place to ensure no contamination seeps into the air and water. But the disposal area, which was most recently owned by the Babcock & Wilcox Co., has never been without intrigue.
Its history sounds more like a Tom Clancy plot than neighborhood folktale. It started as a disposal site for a separate nuclear plant in Apollo, helping build the nation's nuclear arsenal in the years after the Manhattan Project yielded the atomic bomb. Years of sloppy record-keeping would fuel allegations of foul play and espionage, with congressional investigations probing what happened above ground and what to do with what lies beneath.
In Kiskimere, the residents are left in limbo. Many want to leave but worry about how a house with armed guards as neighbors will fare on the real estate market. Others are willing to leave homes they built for retirement if the government will buy them out.
Sets of Geiger counters line the fence to alert workers to airborne radiation, but Mary Anne Walerski, who lives directly across the street, still had new windows installed in her home because she thought they'd better keep out any harmful particles.
"What is so bad over there that has to be guarded 24/7?" Mrs. Walerski said.
The answer to that question is "complex."
When the Army Corps began cleaning up the Parks site, it had a good idea of what elements it would find. What it didn't know was how much.
The nuclear waste was disposed at a different time, when concerns about radiation and record-keeping weren't as stringent as they are now.
The site started as storage space for the nuclear waste created by Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp., a spinoff from Westinghouse founded in the arsenal-building days of the mid-1950s. The company, known as NUMEC, brought jobs to a region that needed them, and got off to an auspicious start with a dedication ceremony attended by Gov. David Lawrence.
NUMEC did commercial and government work out of two plants. It built parts for the nuclear plant in Shippingport, Beaver County, and developed an atom-powered pacemaker that was tested in dogs. The firm buried nuclear waste from the work in trenches across the 44 acres.
Financial troubles followed, and Atlantic Richfield Co. owned NUMEC from 1967 to 1971, when it was bought by Babcock & Wilcox, which in turn transferred it to a subsidiary in 1974. The two plants closed in 1983.
Years passed. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was charged with cleaning up the waste at the NUMEC site and other disposal areas across the country, but two decades went by and the site only grew more overgrown.
The NRC's decades of delays led late U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, to enter legislation in 2002 that would put the project under the auspices of the Army Corps' Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program program, which was cleaning up old sites used in the Manhattan Project.
Since the Corps entered the scene, the site they built has a more nicely paved road than any in the surrounding community. It even has a speed limit sign -- 10 miles per hour. Despite the visible Port-a-Johns and barbed wire, there is a nod to suburban decorum: fake stucco walls camouflage the guard stations.
A huge, football field-sized gray structure was built atop the hill. It's a negative-pressure building with a built-in system that sucks all air through filters. Water tanks treat and cleanse any water used in operations or collected as rain runoff. A dozen mobile trailers sit nearby.
The Corps seemed settled in for the cleanup, which involved meticulously digging long pits, lifting dirt up one foot at a time. The radioactive material may emerge as contaminated soil in 55-gallon drums or rusty junk left over from the site, Mr. Graham said.
"We do expect to find a truck" buried there as well, he said.
About 10 percent of the trenches -- or 167 truckloads sent to a nuclear waste dump in Utah -- had been cleaned in May when workers began finding that "complex" material with greater frequency than they'd expected. A contractor the Army Corps had hired didn't fully examine one of the dug-up drums, failing to account for some of the radioactive material.
The Army Corps went back and measured the material that had been missed. Work stopped, and the Homeland Security armed guards showed up.
That discovery disrupted a move intended to bring order to a site that had been surrounded by conspiracy and litigation in the 30 years since operations stopped.
The most famous speculation surrounds the so-called "Apollo Affair," which began in the 1960s when more than 342 kilograms of highly enriched uranium went missing from the site. It was enough to produce 38 bombs like the so-called Little Man dropped on Hiroshima. A CIA briefing in 1976 lead NRC general counsel Peter Strauss to speculate the missing inventory "represented material taken to Israel" for use in its nuclear program.
NUMEC's CEO, Zalman Shapiro of Oakland, has repeatedly denied the allegations. In his book "The Samson Option," journalist Seymour Hersh said Mr. Shapiro didn't send the uranium to Israel, and that "it ended up in the air and water of the city of Apollo as well as in the ducts, tubes, and floors of the NUMEC plant."
Whatever happened, one thing is clear: The plants of the 1950s and '60s answered to different standards than they do now, and the lack of record-keeping has complicated matters for those trying to clean up the site.
Mr. Graham at the Army Corps said "the exact, to-the-gram count of what nuclear material we're pulling up" isn't known until it's excavated.
Debbie's husband, William Secreto, works in the gas industry and sold fluorine to the plants, experiencing first-hand the lax rules that lead to his present-day worry.
When he'd arrive to pick up his canisters, the company wouldn't let him inside to retrieve them. "Just bill us if one is missing," they'd tell him.
No easy answers
Meanwhile, the agency charged with cleaning up the site questions whether it's the best outfit for the job. Despite overwhelming community support for the Army Corps and its work here, many observers believe the project will go to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has more experience handling "complex" materials.
The Parks job is an anomaly in the portfolio of the Army Corps, a branch of the Army that usually deals with waterway issues. The Parks cleanup is the only such project in Mr. Graham's Pittsburgh district, and he's leaned on advice from counterparts in Buffalo, N.Y., and Omaha, Neb., where similar projects are based.
The Army Corps and the barrage of public documents required for federal funding have found a welcome audience in a community seeking answers. A recent public comment meeting drew almost 200 people to the local bingo hall, which is one of two designated evacuation zones in town.
Mrs. Walerski, who moved here after marrying her husband four years ago, now wants to move. Her sister refused to eat zucchini grown near the plant. The main thoroughfare to her house is now thought of as an escape route.
"There's only one way out," she said.
Mr. Secreto and some neighbors have called on the government to buy them out. The Secretos have built a home that would sell for several hundred thousand dollars in another market, but they know the disposal site will make any sale hard. The government bought out residents in Centralia, the eastern Pennsylvania town that was condemned after an underground mine fire contaminated the area.
Mr. Secreto wants his neighborhood to be the next Centralia.
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