NEW CASTLE, Pa. — Nevada has Area 51.
But it may have nothing on Building 9.
Sure, what goes on at the Air Force base traditionally linked to UFO cover-ups has long been one of the government’s biggest secrets.
Its tales of mystery and intrigue, though, are more than mirrored by a 100-year-old, wooden-roofed behemoth at the south end of a former industrial plant in West Pittsburg.
The 45-acre site once was the home of Remacor, which processed magnesium waste into a desulfurization agent used by the steel industry. A 2005 fire, though, destroyed the plant’s processing equipment, and stockpiles of flammable magnesium continued to grow until last year, when a court order barred Remacor from accepting additional shipments.
After the company failed to meet a state Department of Environmental Protection directive to address risks presented by what the agency said was improperly stored material, another court order allowed the DEP and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to begin a cleanup in March of this year.
Prime among the agencies’ concerns, of course, were bags and barrels of magnesium that estimates now put at more than 5 million pounds.
Still, other materials – some of which officials have yet to identify – also lurk on the cleanup schedule.
And a lot of them are in Building 9.
NAME THAT WASTE
“Building 9 has a lot of drums that go back to what we call the mischmetal days,” said Jack L. Downie, an on-scene coordinator for the EPA’s Region Three. “That’s when they worked with rare earth elements, and they made the element materials from ores.
“There’s a lot of – well, I shouldn’t really say unknowns, but there are a lot of not-well-defined containers in Building 9, which of course, has a wood roof and would be very flammable if something got going.”
To underscore his point, Downie later led the way to a conglomeration of shiny black barrels behind the building that bear such labels as “Unknown White Solid 9/22/06.”
Officials overseeing the Remacor cleanup promise all such materials eventually will be taken off site, but caution that the removal may not proceed as quickly as the magnesium diaspora.
“One of the things you’re probably going to find as we get further into the process and remove more of the magnesium is that we’re going to have to be very careful of some of the things we find in Building 9,” said Larry C. Johnson, a Philadelphia-based community involvement coordinator for the EPA’s hazardous site cleanup division.
“These are things that will require us to apply some science, to find out exactly what this is and to dispose of it properly. So that will be a little slowdown in the process because of the sampling and the analysis. But it’s got to be done, and it’s got to be done safely.”
Now, here’s an important hint to outsiders: If even the EPA doesn’t know what it is, you probably shouldn’t be fooling around with it.
That thought, though, seemed to have been lost on intruders who this summer hacked their way through the site’s perimeter fence and went after some heavy copper cable – about as big around as a kielbasa and weighing nearly a pound a foot — that runs throughout the rafters of Building 9.
It is believed that the criminals didn’t make off with much of a haul, but in the aftermath of their visit, additional video cameras and monitoring devices were placed around the plant.
Uninvited guests, Johnson said, are not unusual.
“That’s a danger at any Superfund site or removal site,” he said. “In this case, the risk of potential exposure from an environmental standpoint is contained. There’s not a lot of risk that it’s going to get out to the general public. But trespassers, they should know that these places aren’t always the safest places in the world to come to. (In addition to its unknown substances, Building 9 also has a compromised roof that could collapse in spots without warning).
“Trespassing is an issue at a lot of these sites,” Johnson continued, “because they think it’s an easy target. But there’s a deceptive part. There are dangers here the average person isn’t aware of. You need to think about whether your need for profit is more important than your need for safety.”
As strange as Building 9 may be – people apparently grilled outside it in what is now a rusty, half-barrel mounted on metal legs, near an assortment of various-sized iron balls that no one on site last week could quite identify – it doesn’t have a lock on the non-magnesium issues facing Remacor cleanup crews.
Near the area of the 2005 fire, a pile of low-level radioactive debris remains covered by a tarp, exactly as it was six months ago. Though it’s still not high on the to-do list, officials are keeping an eye on it.
“The department conducted 10 weeks’ worth over air monitoring (from July through September), just to make sure that the low-level radiation that is present at the site is staying on the site,” said Gary J. Wozniak, assistant program manager for DEP’s emergency response program. “And our results indicated that that is the case.”
Downie added that four monitoring wells have been drilled around the site to further detect possible contamination.
“We have soil profiles for the geologist to look at, and we’ll be doing sampling to determine if there’s anything in the ground water,” he said. “We already know there’s gasoline in Well No. 3 because you can smell it. But we’re going to be testing the water and seeing which way it’s moving.
“We’ve done some limited soil sampling, starting with the Pennsylvania Radiation Protection a while ago, and then we followed that up with a couple of additional surveys and an extensive rad survey, which literally looked at thousands of samples. So we have a real good handle on what levels of low-level radiation are about the site.”
Other actions taken since March include the consolidation and removal of chemicals and other materials found in two laboratories and a laboratory storage area; the de-sludging and pumping of hydrochloric acid from a tank in which certain ores once were processed; the consolidation of waste oil that had been scattered throughout the plant; and the shipping out of a 40-year-old unlabeled drum of sodium discovered early on in the cleanup.
Not all of these problems were as visible as the rusting, 55-gallon drums that, despite the removal of 3.7 million pounds of magnesium, still litter the much of the compound. But officials believe West Pittsburg residents understand what’s happening at the plant.
“One of the things we did, when we first announced that EPA was coming to the site,” Johnson said, “was to make sure that everybody had my name and number somewhere – my business card, or a flier we sent out with my contact information. And what’s kind of unusual from my side of the house – public affairs and community involvement — is that usually at a site, I get a lot of phone calls from people who are concerned, or have issues.
“Here, it’s been remarkably quiet, considering what the issues and concerns are. Everybody seems to be banding together as a community. I think people understand that what happened in August (the spontaneous ignition of a couple magnesium barrels) could have been a lot worse had we not been here doing what we’ve been doing.”
Dan Irwin writes for the New Castle (Pa.) News.
Old New Castle plant site of Super Fund clean-up
NEW CASTLE, Pa. — Nevada has Area 51.