PENN YAN—One of the longest-running nuclear waste cleanups in U.S. history –the Western New York Nuclear Service Center at West Valley in Cattaraugus County – is years behind schedule and perpetually underfunded.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently passed a reauthorization bill to provide $75 million per year for the next eight years for cleanup. The bill, sponsored by New York’s 23rd District Congressman Tom Reed (R), represents $10 million more than is currently allocated.
Democratic Congressional candidate Tracy Mitrano says the bill, is “too little, too late” and falls far short of the $10 billion needed to remove all radioactive and chemical waste and restore the contaminated site to health, protecting nearby communities, rivers, streams, and lakes from the threat of radioactive and chemical contamination.
“The cleanup is gravely behind schedule and even the First Phase is years from completion, in large part because appropriate funding has never been secured and an aggressive timeline with milestones has never been set,” said Mitrano. “As a result, the surrounding communities, including the Seneca Nation, have had to live with this damage to the West Valley environment for decades.”
As recently as 2014, an aerial survey of 90 square miles surrounding the plant found new areas of possible contamination with higher-than-normal radioactivity downstream from the site itself. Indeed, more than thirty years after operations ceased, the contamination remaining at West Valley is a “significant and enduring hazard” for surrounding communities—with documented hotspots in nearby Cattaraugus Creek and traces as far away as the sediment in Lake Ontario, according to multiple reports.
Last spring, several hearings were held to discuss future phase plans, which include turning West Valley into a permanent nuclear waste disposal site, rather than do a complete clean-up. But the Seneca Nation, the Sierra Club, concerned citizen groups and scientists have all expressed concern that the site is too vulnerable to weather events to ever safely store radioactive waste or toxic chemicals. Especially with increases in heavy rainfall associated with climate change, waste could be washed down as far as Lake Erie.
“Some of the waste, buried in horizontal barrels in unlined trenches, is vulnerable to being exposed by rainstorms, which have increased in intensity over the past few years, exceeding what was predicted in the original studies on the site,” said Barbara Dyskant, a Hinsdale resident and member of Concerned Citizens of Cattaraugus County, whose daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 17. “Although we’ll never know what caused her [daughter’s] leukemia, we do know that radioactive materials in the West Valley pose a deadly cancer and immune disruption threat to the people of Western New York.”
The West Valley site was once operated by the country’s only private commercial facility for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and disposing of radioactive waste. The company that ran it, Nuclear Fuel Services Inc., shut their doors and walked away in 1975 leaving “multiple buildings, lagoons, disposal areas, contaminated soil, 600,000 gallons of high-level radioactive waste, and a still-migrating plume of radioactive groundwater,” according to New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
“It is one of the most poisonous and destructive toxic sites in the United States, a legacy of our atomic energy program in the Second World War. It is hurting Western New Yorkers, but it is the federal government’s responsibility to clean it up,” said Mitrano. “It’s shameful that our communities have suffered with this nuclear-waste for so long with such feeble response from our Congressman. It is time we elect a representative to with the dedicated purpose of getting this site fixed.”
While there has been success in addressing some of the big threats — most notably converting liquid high-level radioactive waste into a glass-like property that is easier to contain — overall progress has been frustrating slow. Just recently the company in charge of cleanup demolished the administration building; but many structures, including ones housing radioactive material, remain on the 175-acre campus.