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Corps hosts rare visit inside NFSS Interim Waste Containment Structure

by jmaloni
Sat, Aug 4th 2012 07:00 am
John Busse, LOOW Site program manger for the Army Corps of Engineers, talks with visitors outside the Niagara Falls Storage Site on Tuesday.
John Busse, LOOW Site program manger for the Army Corps of Engineers, talks with visitors outside the Niagara Falls Storage Site on Tuesday.

Article and photo by Terry Duffy

"It's not necessarily like a park; it may look like a park in some places, but it's not." So prefaced Dennis Rimer, site superintendent for the highly secure Niagara Falls Storage Site at the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works in Lewiston.

Tuesday morning, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District, government overseers of the 191-acre NFSS facility, hosted a tour of the site for the LOOW Community Action Council, a local group that conducts community outreach for the Corps as part of its NFSS cleanup feasibility study of the Interim Waste Containment Structure, now under way. Also among the 20 or so on hand were county legislators, local office representatives of federal elected officials and area residents.

Visitors, some for the first time, learned the inner details of the LOOW and NFSS activity history, from the World War II era to recent times.

They learned how the various LOOW site structures, many dating back to WWII-era munitions manufacturing, had been raised over the years. And how the debris from these, plus highly radioactive wastes from atomic bomb development that were transported for storage at NFSS, were all ultimately consolidated into the construction of the 10-acre IWCS, a temporary cell built in 1986.

But they also heard words of assurance from LOOW Site Program Manager John Busse and Rimer regarding the immediate and long-term stability of the IWCS. "Our mission is to investigate and control environmental impacts, to make sure nothing is getting outside of the box," Busse told the group.

They also had the rare opportunity to enter the cordoned-off facility, managed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and climb atop the 10-acre mound.

Busse told visitors the IWCS has an estimated 25- to 50-year life on its cap. The structure, comprised of radioactive wastes topped by debris, more clays and soils, then a grass cap, is enclosed by clay dikes on its sides, sealed cement floors on portions of the bottom and then high density clay soils further below.

Buried deep inside, about 25 feet down from the grass cap, inside the basement cells of what was once a former water treatment plant series of buildings on the south end, are found very high level K-65 wastes, which comprise 95 percent of the radioactivity in the IWCS but just 1 percent of its volume. Also found inside are lower level R-10 residues and soils, more lower level radioactive residues and wastes, contaminated rubble and wastes from former NFSS structures, tower soils from a torn-down silo complex, plus a host of other contaminated soils. Topping it are the aforementioned series of impervious clays of varying density, soils, six inches of topsoils and the grass cap.

Both Busse and Rimer stressed to the group throughout the tour the continued integrity of the IWCS, a facility that sees constant maintenance by the Corps. Included among the many protective steps is heavy watering of the grass atop the cell. "We water the grass daily," said Rimer.

Also very extensive, continuous testing of the cell, done by means of hundreds of ground-level and below-surface monitoring wells. Busse told the group the Corps has 300 to 400 monitoring wells on the NFSS proper, many of them surrounding the actual IWCS.

"There's a lot to do here ... there (have) been a lot of complications on this site," Rimer said.

Rimer said the entire IWCS cap also has been physically scanned in the past for radiation with no detectable leaks. Drainage channels are also monitored constantly; monitoring is performed both above and below surface and both stressed nothing is being detected.

"We have radon detectors surrounding this ... there's nothing getting out, nothing (radon) beyond background," said Rimer. "Someone would have to take a bulldozer to actually break into this."

Busse further demonstrated the safety element to visitors by means of a Geiger counter as he stood atop the cell. Nothing beyond background levels of radiation was found. "We're basically seeing nothing here. It's performing as designed."

Busse told the group the Corps expects to conclude its NFSS cleanup feasibility study to determine the IWCS future by 2014 and reach a record of decision on what to ultimately do with the site by 2016. "We're trying to figure out what to do next," here, said Busse, adding that ultimately would depend on the ability of obtaining federal funding.

Until then, he stressed the Corps' primary focus remains its diligence on keeping things in check within the IWCS cell.

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