Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Neutron must get rid of radioactive waste, court says

Ruling may mark end of appeals for Dickerson plant

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Perhaps the final chapter in Neutron Products’ decades-long battle with the state was closed last month when the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that the company could be held in contempt for failing to make court-ordered shipments of radioactive waste from its Dickerson plant.

In an opinion filed May 20, Judge James R. Eyler ruled in favor of the Maryland Department of the Environment and discounted Neutron President Jack Ransohoff’s argument that the company was physically and financially unable to make the shipments. The court also found that Ransohoff directed the company not to comply with the court order, citing a 2001 letter to MDE officials in which he calls the agency’s regulations ‘‘frivolous.”

If the company fails to abide by the 2000 court order upheld by the Court of Special Appeals, Ransohoff and Neutron will be fined $100,000 each, according to the opinion.

‘‘Due process can take a long time,” said Ray Manley, chief of radioactive materials licensing and compliance at MDE. ‘‘...We’re holding this licensee accountable for its illegal activity.”

Ransohoff, 79, said last month that he would continue to fight against the court order.

‘‘This is my life’s work,” he said. ‘‘As long as the flesh supports the spirit, I’m going to fight.”

Neutron has accumulated hundreds of violations since opening in 1959, though MDE spokeswoman Kim Lampheir said the agency could not provide an exact number. Compiling specific information on violations and the fees Neutron has paid would require going through boxes of files and would cost The Gazette $30,000, she said. The company was cited for violations as late as 2004, when an inspector found 18 separate failures to ship and dispose of radioactive waste.

‘‘It has been going on forever, that’s for sure, and this has been a step we’ve been waiting for for some time,” said Carol Oberdorfer, president of the Dickerson Community Association. ‘‘...That company has brought nothing but grief to Dickerson.”

The case dates back to 1995, when MDE adopted regulations requiring companies operating under radioactivity licenses to prove they could afford to decommission their nuclear facilities in the event of a closure. Neutron used radioactive cobalt 60 in commercial sterilization and the production of medical supplies such as cancer therapy sources until 2002.

Neutron failed to comply and was ordered to remove its radioactive waste by August 2004 but only made one shipment by the deadline, according to the opinion. Neutron was found in contempt for failing to dispose of the waste in 2005, and a court-appointed auditor found that Neutron was financially able to make the shipments. Neutron and Ransohoff separately appealed the contempt order, though Neutron eventually dropped its case.

MDE will work with the company to get rid of its waste as soon as possible, Manley said.

‘‘We hope to have a substantial amount shipped by the end of the summer,” he said. The agency will continue regular inspections at the plant, he said. About 1,500 curies of radioactive waste remains at the site, he said. Neutron has shipped less than 1 curie of material to date.

‘‘The first shipment will have the greatest effect on radiation levels,” Manley said. The plant has released a small amount of radioactive particles over the years, he said, but the radiation is below federal limits and does not pose a significant risk to the community.

The clean-up will be financed by money in an escrow account and possibly the sale of three Neutron-owned properties in Dickerson, Manley said.