By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CROSBY TOWNSHIP - Fernald's past has been well-documented: The Cold War-era uranium refinery helped the country win the arms race but left behind a mountain of nuclear contamination that has taken more than a decade and $4 billion to clean up.
But biologists with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency hope that the site's future can be found in a small wetland in Darke County, north of Dayton, where they caught salamanders and other tiny critters at the base of the food chain to better understand how much life a healthy wetland can sustain.
The majority of the 1,050-acre Fernald site will eventually be turned into undeveloped park space - in other words prairies, wetlands and forests that will resemble Ohio in a time before Europeans settled the land.
The salamander census, which biologist Joe Bartoszek conducted at the Shawnee Prairie Preserve and about two dozen other sites around the state, including some in Hamilton County, comes at a critical time for Fernald, as it transitions from weapons to wetlands:
Federal officials are looking for an agency willing to manage the site for decades to come, while the cleanup is rapidly approaching a June 2006 deadline when the vast majority of the work needs to be completed.
Lawyers with the OEPA and the federal Department of Energy, which is overseeing the cleanup, started negotiations last week over how much money the federal government will leave behind to manage the site.
Energy officials last year offered $5 million that could be used to manage the site and build an educational facility that would stand as a permanent reminder of how the facility contributed to the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal, the disastrous environmental consequences of that work, and the monumental effort undertaken to clean up the land and water at the site.
That offer was deemed insufficient by the state, which led the parties back to the bargaining table late last week.
"We're spending a lot of time and money making Fernald into a park. The question becomes how do we make sure the land stays in that use for generations to come?" said Graham Mitchell, chief of the office of federal facilities oversight for the Department of Energy. "We also want to make sure that people continue to understand what happened there."
"We think there should be a dollar amount associated with that" paid by the federal government.
Telling the story of Fernald might happen at an environmental education center on the site. The center would include displays dealing with issues such as how the soil and water became contaminated by decades of uranium processing, and how they were cleaned by one of the largest Superfund efforts in the Midwest.
"The educational piece is something the community would really like to see," said Lisa Crawford, president of Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health. "But it might have to come a couple years down the road. It's not going to happen overnight."
Gary Stegner, a spokesman for the Department of Energy, said both his agency and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency hope to have an agreement in place by the end of the year.
"I think DOE is well aware that we'll have a financial obligation that will be fairly long-term," Stegner said.
Back in the swamps of Darke County, Bartoszek said, it's important to take inventory of the tiny bugs, inch-long salamanders and variety of plant life in healthy wetlands now, while lawyers argue over money. That, he said, will help ensure healthy wildlands for the public, long after the cranes and bulldozers have left Fernald.
Bartoszek reviewed designs for the man-made wetlands at Fernald and is responsible for monitoring the health of those areas. He said recording the numbers and health of animals in undisturbed wetlands will give state regulators a baseline on what to expect in the future from Fernald.
"We've built places (at Fernald) for people to go and see nature, so we want to know how they're doing," Bartoszek said. "And you can tell a lot about a wetland by looking at what is there."
Similar surveys have been done for plant life. The idea is to create an index of sorts, where the quantity and health of each species of plant or animal receives a score. From those scores, biologists can fix a numerical value to the heath of a wetland.
"We are doing some things out here to try and come as close as we can to a more natural wetland you may see in the region," said Eric Woods, restoration manager at Fernald. "The surveys give us a real good idea of whether or not we're doing things the right way."
So far, the wetlands at Fernald get a high grade from the state and federal watchdogs. But Bartoszek said the long-term success of the future park at Fernald will depend on how much money is left behind and which agency is selected to manage it.
"Proper management is important for any piece of property," Bartoszek said.
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