A pale blue water tower hovers over Vineland’s northern border, the “SMC” emblem on it a constant reminder to residents of where 63,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste may be left for at least the next millennium.
The Shieldalloy Metallurgical Corp.’s former metal manufacturing facility in Newfield, Gloucester County, sits within a few yards of Cumberland County’s border, and about three miles from Atlantic County’s.
That’s why the latest legal wrangling over what should be done with the leftover uranium, thorium and radium concerns more than a few nearby homeowners.
“Over the years, from a Vineland standpoint, it’s been a controversial site, to say the least,” said George Sartorio, Vineland’s health officer. “It’s not an immediate health threat, but over the long term? That’s the big unknown.”
In November, a U.S. District Court of Appeals overturned a 2009 decision that transferred regulatory oversight of the Shieldalloy site from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to the state. Shieldalloy appealed the decision because immediately after the state took control, it ordered the waste to a storage site in Utah, about 2,200 miles away.
Shieldalloy, a subsidiary of international manufacturing firm Metallurg Inc., has said that the cost of that removal would bankrupt the company. The estimated price for taking the waste away by train ranges from $28 million to $45 million, based on a proposal submitted last year by Utah-based EnergySolutions.
Shieldalloy also has argued that the decision to transfer control from the NRC to the state was unlawful, and the court’s justices agreed.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing the decision, while state, federal and company officials discussed options for moving forward during a meeting Nov. 22.
They agreed it would be unlikely for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case if it were appealed again. The District Court’s decision takes effect at the end of the month, but the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board has already issued an order for staff to restart a review of the facility’s decommissioning plan, with its first bi-monthly report due Jan. 25.
The NRC’s rules would allow Shieldalloy to keep the waste on site, monitoring it for the next 1,000 years, although it would remain dangerously radioactive for billions of years, the state says.
People constantly absorb tiny amounts of radiation naturally, through cosmic rays from space, elements in the ground and even food they eat. But the amount of radiation detectable at the fence closest to the slag on Shieldalloy’s site is 16 times the typical level southern New Jersey residents experience naturally. Radiation is 375 times higher on contact with the waste, Shieldalloy says.
“Our first priority remains the site’s safety, the safety of our employees and the safety of the residents of Newfield,” said company spokesman Noah Lichtman in an e-mail. “The decommissioning plan in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been reviewed by expert scientists as the safest scientific solution, which is onsite capping.”
Radiation is not the only concern. Workers continue to clean the soil to remove several chemical compounds that leaked into groundwater as early as 1970 just south on Weymouth Road in Vineland. The contamination eventually caused the city to run public water to that area, Sartorio said.
All these problems are not news to the people who have sought the removal of the waste from the Newfield site.
Loretta Williams, who moved to Newfield 65 years ago as a toddler, before Shieldalloy started operating in the early 1950s, has been one of the most vocal opponents of the presence of radioactive waste at the site.
“They (Shieldalloy) made a lot of money in this town over the years, and now they’re doing nothing,” she said.
Lichtman said that the site is already safe, but will be made safer through its plan with the NRC.
“The slag has not and will not impact the groundwater, and the development of a cap will further ensure that this will not happen,” he said. “A very similar plan in Cambridge, Ohio, has freed that site of environmental liabilities so that it is once again a successful manufacturing site, employing over 100 people directly and supporting hundreds more jobs in the small community.”
But Williams listed the government officials who have taken her side, such as U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, both D-N.J., state Sen. Fred Madden, D-Gloucester, Camden, Cumberland and Gloucester county freeholders, and local leaders.
“Newfield families should not be forced to live near a dumping ground for radioactive waste,” Lautenberg said in a statement.
“This community has fought too hard to have this slag pile removed from their neighborhoods,” Madden said in a statement soon after the court’s decision.
Because of fears of the toxic materials seeping into the groundwater again, Williams said it also should be considered an issue for people in surrounding counties who get their water from the underlying aquifer.
“This just doesn’t affect Newfield, Vineland and Franklin Township,” she said. “It actually affects most of southern New Jersey.”
Buena Mayor Joseph Baruffi said borough residents in Atlantic County have been following the Shieldalloy case for years. He said he felt his residents were safe from potential contamination because their aquifer is contained but said many nevertheless feel they have a stake in their surrounding communities.
“I have relatives in Newfield,” he said. “It’s a serious issue, and it’s definitely alarming.”
Shieldalloy stopped production in 2006, ending decades of manufacturing of metal alloys and products for a variety of industries.
But the future of the area remains tied to the site, its tower watching over the surrounding towns, and nearby residents watching right back.
“It should be removed,” Vineland’s Sartorio said. “It shouldn’t just be left there.”
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