A site once home to a Cold War-era uranium processing plant and the focus of a contentious struggle to clean up toxic waste has re-emerged as a haven for wildlife and a memorial to those who worked to make the area safe.
The Fernald Preserve and its visitors center will make their public debut Wednesday at the former site of the government center that processed uranium metal for nuclear weapons from 1952 to 1989. Shrouded in secrecy for years, the site gained national notoriety in the 1980s with media reports on site emissions and residents' concerns over radioactive contamination of air, soil and groundwater.
A corrugated metal warehouse was transformed into a visitors' center that traces the site's history from its years as an American Indian habitat. Some exhibits highlight the plant's workers, known as "Cold War warriors" for their contribution to the nation's defense.
The preserve is not a recreational area. There are no bike trails or picnic areas, but visitors can walk nature trails, viewing wild ducks and geese gliding along marshy ponds surrounded by prairie grass and wildflowers.
"We are using native plants and grasses identified in an 1819 land survey to return the site to the way it was then — a haven for birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects," said Sue Walpole, spokeswoman for S.M. Stoller Corp., Legacy Management's contractor.
The center doesn't try to hide the plant's tumultuous history. Newspaper and TV reports chronicling the public outcry and ensuing lawsuits are part of exhibits on display.
"We tried to show everything, warts and all," said Jane Powell, site manager for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Legacy Management, which operates the site.
'I'm not afraid here now'
The $4.4 billion site cleanup was completed in January 2007. The visitor's center and preserve, which cost $7 million, are the first developed under Legacy Management, which is responsible for more than 60 other waste sites around the country, Powell said.
"It's amazing and very emotional for me," said Lisa Crawford, a founder of the citizens group that lobbied for cleanup for more than 20 years. "I'm not afraid here now, and there was a time when I was very afraid."
More than 4.7 million tons of low-level waste remain at Fernald in a fenced-off, 110-acre pile encased in thick liners and caps made of synthetic material, clay, rock and clean soil. The 65-foot-high, grass-covered mound snaking along an edge of the preserve is about the length of two Empire State Buildings laid end to end.
The rest of the radioactive waste — more than a million tons — was shipped to storage and disposal sites in Nevada, Utah and Texas.
Officials say the site has met cleanup standards established by federal and state regulators. Fernald groundwater will be pumped and treated for eight to 10 years until the drinking water standard is met.
"I think Fernald is a good model for other sites," said Susan Gordon, director of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a national network of organizations concerned with nuclear weapons production and waste cleanup issues. "A plan was developed that the community was comfortable with and that didn't push all of the waste into someone else's backyard, but that recognized the need for monitoring the site in the future."
Powell, of the Energy Department, worked at Fernald when the plant was still operating.
"Sometimes I look out my office windows, and I can almost see the ghosts of the workers and buildings that were here for so many years," she said. "It's often hard to believe that we've come this far."