Pike County residents pushing for radiation exposure compensation

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MCDERMOTT, Ohio (WOUB) – Vina Colley has an air filter outside her home about 17 miles south of the old Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. 

Once a month, she mails it to Dr. Michael Ketterer in Arizona, who tests it for contamination. 

The plant started enriching uranium in 1954 and stopped in 2001, according to the Department of Energy’s website. The plant was decommissioned in 2011 and the decontamination process was started. 

“I’m primarily concerned with things like uranium from the gaseous diffusion operations,” Ketterer said. “I think that there’s a pattern of somewhere on the order of 10 to 15 miles in radius starting from the center of the plant and going in all directions.”

Federal programs that provide compensation to people who develop certain cancers from exposure to radioactive contamination apply only to workers, not residents in the community. But efforts are underway to change this.

Colley worked at the plant for three years starting in 1980. She filed a grievance with the Department of Labor in 1983 because she believed she and 30 other workers were exposed to radioactive materials. 

An air filter outside Vina Colley's home in McDermott.
An air filter outside Vina Colley’s home in McDermott is used to monitor the air for radioactive contamination. [Alison Patton | WOUB ]
“I was a completely healthy worker when I went to work out there,” Colley said. “I started investigating and getting documents and finding out what was really going on.”

Colley is now president of the Portsmouth/Piketon Residents for Environmental Safety and Security, a group trying to spread awareness of the issue to political leaders. 

“The residents have the same cancers as the workers, so if you’re going to pay the workers, why haven’t we paid the community?” Colley said.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act covered uranium miners, millers and transporters of the mineral who have one of 22 cancers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The act expired Friday while a bill to reauthorize the program is stuck in the House.

The reauthorization bill would expand coverage areas to include ZIP codes in Missouri, Tennessee, Alaska and Kentucky. The bill would also expand compensation coverage to community members. It passed the Senate in March.

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown wants to add ZIP codes in Pike, Scioto, Hamilton and Butler counties — Ohio was not included in the original act. But Brown’s amendment cannot be considered until the House takes up the bill.

“Nuclear communities, like Piketon, helped our nation win the Cold War,” Brown said in a prepared state. “Congress has an obligation to provide compensation to workers, community members and residents who have gotten sick or died as a result of radiation exposure.”

Gina Doyle, co-founder of the Facebook group “Don’t Dump on Us,” said Pike County residents are “down to the wire” for the act.

“What RECA means for our community is ‘I’m sorry. We’re sorry that we contaminated you. Here’s a little bit of something,’ and then we can go from there,” Doyle said. 

Doyle has collected hundreds of signatures for a petition to reauthorize and expand RECA to include Pike and Scioto counties. 

“The petition is to try to get support for the people in our county and in Scioto County who have cancer,” Doyle said.