A Cleveland site that was once part of the World War II-era project to develop the atomic bomb, could be re-developed. But first, it needs to be cleaned up. And residents who live near the property are concerned about the options.
What’s known as the Industrial Valley below the Harvard-Denison Bridge is what drivers might call “a huge mess” as road crews work along Jennings Road on a section of the Towpath Trail that will finally connect to Steelyard Commons. The half-mile section has been on-hold for years, since it has to go around the former site of the Harshaw Chemical plant. The 55-acre campus is surrounded by a tall, green fence, except for the gnarled revolving entry gate that sits decaying at 1000 Harvard Avenue. John Grabowski is a history professor at Case Western Reserve University, and explains that the company was once part of the Arsenal of Democracy.
“During World War II, they got into the production of uranium hexafluoride, which was essential to development of the atomic bomb.
“In the first World War, Newton D. Baker – former Progressive-era Mayor of Cleveland – becomes the Secretary of War. And, obviously, he knows a lot of the industrialists in Cleveland. And that reputation carries over into World War II.”
Even though the company ended uranium processing in the 1950s, it continued using the site for other chemical production until the 1990s. Victoria Simna has a biological sciences degree from Baldwin Wallace University, and lives in the nearby South Hills neighborhood.
“There are various decay products of uranium -- and other uranium isotopes – still remaining on the site. It decays by alpha particles. That means that external exposure is not dangerous, because alpha particles do not penetrate human skin. However, ingestion of alpha particles can cause severe health effects.”
There’s also Thorium and Radium according to a report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And that’s what concerns Simna and her neighbor, Mary Ann Jannazo. She moved to the area in the 1950s.
“We’re about two miles from the Harshaw site. We’re concerned that they’re going to remediate this land that’s been contaminated with nuclear waste. Which, I think, we can all agree is not a good thing. Our concern mostly is that it’s so close to the river.”
Follow the river
In fact, the Cuyahoga River runs right through what used to be Harshaw Chemical. Concerns about contaminating the water came up at a recent public meeting hosted by the Army Corps on the future of the site. One idea is to leave it as-is. Mary Ann Jannazo says that would be fine.
“No one is benefitting from this. We’re trying to prevent a catastrophe. We don’t know that it’s going to happen. But why would you risk disturbing radioactive land? For what gain is there?”
Another plan would essentially block off the land from the public, and establish deed restrictions so that future owners know the area is contaminated. That costs about $10 million, and would mean the land could not be used for much else. But the Army Corps’ project manager for the site, Steven Vriesen, prefers to remove the contaminated soil. That would cost around $39 million. He says something needs to be done because he does not want to see erosion take the contaminated soil into the river, regardless of future uses for the site.
“Even though, right now, there’s no immediate plans -- that we’re aware of -- to develop that site, city planning documents do indicate that at some point in the future, it could potentially be used for residential development. Under that scenario, then the critical group becomes the residents.”
But that would be only for a small portion of what was once Harshaw Chemical – most of the site is, as of
now, slated to remain industrial. Robert Simons is a professor of urban planning and real estate development at Cleveland State University. He says that when residential use is involved, there’s a high standard of cleanup for sites like Harshaw.
“Those types of areas might be suitable for redevelopment. Probably for non-residential use. And if you had a use like shopping or an industrial project on there -- and you could assure yourself that you could have a cap, keeping the objectionable material below, and cap it with a layer of clay, possibly other technical material, and a parking lot on top, you could prevent people on the surface from being harmed by whatever is underground. That’s why residential probably wouldn’t work there unless it was completely clean and has the proper closure letters from all of the authorities.”
Officials at the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail have made similar suggestions, including adding a canoe livery service. But for residential, Mary Ann Jannazo argues that there are plenty of other places to build. She also wants to know where the remediated soil is going, and who’s footing the bill. The Army Corps’ Steven Vriesen says only that the soil will go to a site that’s approved to handle such material. He adds that the Corps does have the ability to negotiate to recoup remediation costs from the current landowners, which are Chevron and German chemical company BASF.
Right now, though, the Corps is still collecting information to decide which remediation option to pursue. A plan of attack, based on the public comments, should be released in the next 12-18 months. For Mary Ann Jannazo, the risk of contamination means there is more at stake than just her neighborhood.
“This isn’t just a Cleveland concern. If contaminants get into the river, which flows north, it gets into the lake -- this should be a Great Lakes concern. For all the states that touch Lake Erie.”
The Army Corps’ public comment period has been extended to Tuesday, June 25. Comments can be sent via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 1-800-833-6390 (option 4), or mailed to:
USACE, Buffalo District Attn: Special Projects Branch - Outreach 1776 Niagara Street Buffalo, NY 14207 Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Army Corps will continue to take public comments for another month, extending the original May 14 deadline to June 25.