A Radioactive Nightmare in Concord, Massachusetts
By Ed Ericson, Jr.
The waitress at the ice cream shop in Concord, Massachusetts was
surprised. A Superfund site? she asked, incredulous, on Main Street?
Not just a Superfund sitea Superfund site that a cleanup contractor
has dubbed near the tip of the peak in terms of [cleanup] difficulty.
A radioactive Superfund site.
Concord, the crucible of the American Revolution, where the shot
heard round the world rang out on April 19, 1775, is a Boston suburb
filled with professionals and stately homes. Tourists still come
to see the war sites, and to visit the bucolic Walden Pond that
Few know about the nuclear waste dump at 2229 Main Street. But this
shady burg of 15,000 residents quietly struggles with its legacy
as the maker of depleted uranium slugs for the U.S. militarys latest
wars. The soil more than a mile from the nuclear dump is radioactive.
A 1993 epidemiological study found the towns residents suffered
higher rates of cancer than the state average.
Today, atop and buried beneath a low hill above a cranberry bog,
more than 3,800 barrels of radioactive and toxic waste lie, subject
to a government-paid cleanup estimated to take 10 years and cost
at least $50 million.
The company responsible for most of the waste, Starmet, declared
bankruptcy in 2002. Massachusetts has sued Starmet and several
related companies to enforce state laws against radioactive dumping,
but so far has had little success on the legal front. The Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) hastily concluded that Starmet was broke
and has made no move to charge it for the pending cleanup.
All of the people who benefited and made millions from the process
are not being tagged at all with the cleanup process, says Mark
Roberts, an environmental lawyer and member of Citizens Research
and Environmental Watch (CREW), a citizens group that has fought
to get the site cleaned up for more than 20 years.
Since 1958, Starmet (formerly known as Nuclear Metals) processed
depleted uranium into tank shells and armor for the U.S. Army, using
caustic acids, beryllium and other dangerous substances. From the
early 1970s until 1985, the company dumped depleted uranium into
an unlined lagoon on the property, sending a toxic plume of radiation,
heavy metals and solvents migrating into the groundwater, fouling
at least two wells. The company resisted pressure to clean up the
lagoon until 1997, when the pond was finally dug up and the soils
shipped to a low-level nuclear waste dump in Utah. That project was
costly, though, and the remediation company sued Starmet for unpaid
bills. Just about this time, military orders for depleted uranium
munitions stopped too. Starmet began to lose money.
In May 2001, Starmet officials illegally shipped 1,700 barrels of
depleted uranium greensalt from a company facility in Barnwell,
South Carolina to Concord. The cash-strapped company was cleaning
the South Carolina facility in preparation for sale, EPA documents
When Massachusetts health and environmental officials protested,
Starmets president, Robert Quinn, threatened to abandon the Concord
site and stick the state with the cost of cleanup. In 2002, after
the state forced bankrupt Starmet into receivership, according to
EPA records, the company did abandon the site for several weeks.
Nowadays Quinnwho angrily blames the U.S. Army for Starmets
bankruptcysits at a lonely desk in a low building on the site while
a few security guards watch over the mess. And what a fine mess it
is. Conservatively speaking, there is at least 20 times more depleted
uranium on and under Starmets 46 acres on Main Street, Concord than
the 340 tons that were fired in all of Iraq during the first Gulf
War. There are tons of berylliuma probable carcinogenin the soil
and leaking from buried drums. And in a recently discovered area
known as the old dump there are unknown substances, possibly including
high-level radioactive waste and exotic explosives.
Much of the work during the next four to five years will consist
of determining whats in the barrels buried in the old dump, according
to Bruce Thompson of De Maximis, Inc., the engineering group chosen
by EPA to head the cleanup process. He says some preliminary research
indicates that exotic radioactive and heavy metals may have been
buried there by MIT scientists during the Manhattan Project. He is
also concerned about the potential presence of an explosive, zirconium
azide. Thats something I dont want to hit with a backhoe, Thompson
told a town subcommittee meeting in September.
That Thompson and the EPA arrived in Concord at all is credit to
the efforts of a small group of committed activists. CREW is led
by Rick Oleson, a Princeton and Harvard-educated radiation biologist
and toxicologist whose late father was a nuclear physicist. Oleson
spent part of his childhood in a house near the factory. State
records show the most contaminated area on the site is adjacent to
Camp Thoreau, a summer camp for children ages three and up.
Its one industrial setting in a very residential area, says Oleson.
People later could put a house or well there, or grow vegetables.
Oleson and CREW are focusing their efforts to make sure the EPA
demands that the dump is cleaned up to a residential level, rather
than the looser standards allowable for an industrial site.
Jeffrey McNabola was a member of Concerned Citizens of Concord,
CREWs predecessor, in the 1970s and early 1980s. He notes that the
group was warning people about the dangers of depleted uranium and
other activities at Nuclear Metals for decades before anyone in
officialdom gave them any credence. There was a cavalier attitude
about depleted uranium, he says. They said that its safe as chocolate
Even Oleson took years to conclude that Nuclear Metals activities
were unacceptable. I used to cross-country ski and run back there,
he says of the woods bordering the dumpsite. It was a very pretty
place...and there was this big pond. It was full of psychedelic
Oleson and CREW are hunkering down for a long battle, keeping a
wary eye on the EPA and its contractors. Loath to link deaths from
cancer or rare diseases to the factory, Oleson (who works for
Monsanto) and others in CREW strive to hue a strict scientific
linelest they appear as radicals.
The strategy seems to be working. The real story behind the story
I tell people, Oleson says, is that a few people volunteered their
time to do something that needed doing. And for years they were
dismissed and made fun of. And they totally turned the town around.