N.J. considers a radioactive waste dump A relocating manufacturer wants to leave behind a 6-acre pile of slag in Newfield, or threatens bankruptcy.

Posted: September 18, 2006

Over the last half-century, a South Jersey specialty metal manufacturer has dumped radioactive waste into a pile outside its Gloucester County factory.

The pile now stands four stories high and sprawls over six acres.

By the end of this year, Shieldalloy Metallurgical Corp. says it will move to Brazil for cheaper raw materials and labor.

It wants to leave its pile behind in tiny Newfield Borough, a town of 1,600 on the Cumberland County border best known for its Matchbox Toy Museum. Moving the radioactive pile, Shieldalloy says, would cost so much it would bankrupt the company and leave taxpayers stuck with the cleanup bill.

The federal government is considering Shieldalloy's plan, which would create New Jersey's first radioactive dump.

"That's nothing more than sweeping it under the rug," Newfield Mayor Rick Westergaard said. "I want to see it gone."

Newfield and neighboring Vineland and Franklin Township have passed resolutions formally protesting Shieldalloy's proposal. Earlier this month, the Gloucester County freeholders also formally objected to the plan.

"It's not acceptable for Shieldalloy to walk away and leave anything behind," said Freeholder Director Stephen M. Sweeney, who also is a state senator. "We're going to work with the town to try to force the company to do what's responsible and clean it up."

Shieldalloy has produced metal alloys and other specialty materials used for steel, aluminum and titanium on a 67-acre site - 10 percent of the borough's land - since 1953. An elementary school is located several blocks away.

The company is a division of Metallurg Holdings Inc., which is held by an affiliate of venture capital firm Safeguard Scientific Inc., of Wayne.

Shieldalloy's primary product is ferroniobium, an additive that makes steel strong enough for jet turbines. The metal also is used in mobile phones and other electronic equipment.

The process of smelting ore to refine the ferroniobium also creates radioactive slag, a harder-than-granite waste that ranges from the size of a gumball to a small car. Shieldalloy has dumped all the slag into a pile, which soars 35 feet and consumes six acres of the company's back lot.

Shieldalloy proposes to leave the slag where it is, cover it with soil and grass, build a fence around it, and set aside $5 million to manage it until the year 3010.

The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates radioactive waste, is reviewing Shieldalloy's proposal. The commission may schedule public hearings and order an environmental impact statement before approving or rejecting the plan.

At issue is whether the 50,000-ton slag pile is safe.

"The material is basically innocuous," said David R. Smith, who has served as the environmental manager of the Shieldalloy site for 18 years. "Is it dangerous? Only if you throw it hard enough at somebody it is."

The NRC agrees.

"There is no danger to public health and safety from the site," asserted NRC spokeswoman Diane Screnci.

The state Department of Environmental Protection disagrees.

"No amount of radiation is completely safe, and you want to limit your exposure from any source," said Jill Lipoti, the DEP director of environmental safety and health. "I would say Shieldalloy might be disingenuous by saying that it's innocuous."

The ore that Shieldalloy uses, called polychlore, naturally contains the radioactive elements uranium and thorium. After smelting - a process in which the ore is melted - the slag remains radioactive.

The slag pile sits on unprotected sandy soil. The groundwater in the area, according to the DEP, is contaminated with radium, which causes cancer and other disorders.

For reasons unrelated to the radioactive waste, the Shieldalloy property was classified in 1983 as a federal Superfund toxic site.

Groundwater and soil were found to be contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a highly toxic, water-soluble metal that was the object of Erin Brockovich's environmental crusade later told in the movie.

The groundwater cleanup - which has been under way for more than two decades - will take an additional seven to eight years, according to Shieldalloy's environmental engineer.

Shieldalloy spokesman Michael Turner said the company had three options for the slag pile: fencing and capping it, hauling it to a dump for low-level radioactive waste in Utah, or abandoning it.

The Utah cleanup would cost $58 million, which Turner said "would put significant financial strain on the company's ability to continue without filing for bankruptcy."

Bankruptcy would leave the state and federal governments holding the slag and paying for its cleanup.

"To even threaten bankruptcy is a form of toxic blackmail," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "It's not even a thinly veiled threat. They're saying if you force us to clean up, even though they're responsible, the taxpayers will get stuck with the bill."

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 856-779-3838 or samwood@phillynews.com.

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