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Monday, April 02, 2012

Finding Your Place

Vintage Glowing Stuff Dept.: Even after 22 years at my rural compound, I’m still asked how I ended up here. My wife, Susan, and I lived in Schenectady for many years, a place to which I moved from Connecticut in 1980 to work as a classical radio announcer. Soon I eased into freelance work as a writer and actor, writing and acting. Thank goodness Susan remains gainfully employed. Although we lived in an attractive, historic part of that city, the neighborhood was changing. One morning we were awakened by the sound of the FBI breaking into the house next door, from which they removed guns and drugs.

Seeking a new residence not more than a half-hour from Susan's job site, we plotted a circumference on a map and examined its slices. We were familiar with all of the pie pieces except a section to the west where a village with unlikely name of Glen fell on the circumference line. To reach it, we took a stretch of NYS Thruway, then a series of small state highways. About a mile before we reached the village, just as a lovely view of the Mohawk Valley was rising to our right, the car ran out of gas.

Plenty of daylight remained on this pleasant August evening. We walked on into Glen, pleased to see that the farmland sparseness soon gave way to a modest cluster of houses, some of them attractively old. But would there be a gas station?

At one of the houses, a cottage that we later would learn was one of the oldest structures in the village, a man and woman relaxed in kitchen chairs on the small front porch. Susan is bolder than I about such things, and hailed them from the street, explaining our predicament. “There’s no gas station here,” we were told, so I asked if I could use their phone. “It’s right inside,” the woman said. “Go on in.”

Not the kind of invitation I’m used to getting. I dialed a friend in nearby Amsterdam and got no answer. As I returned to the porch to discuss the predicament, I found my wife chatting away with the couple. “You’re a writer?” the woman asked. “I have some pamphlets to give her.”

Oh no. Religious nuts. So sure was I of the annoying nature of the material pressed into my hand that it took me a moment to realize that they were politically based screeds giving information about a low-level radioactive dump-siting commission’s target of Glen as one of several candidate sites.

Their names were Sherrie and George Dedicke. They called their friend Tim Lane, who was leading an opposition group, to come over and talk to us. I took some notes. We got a ride back to our vehicle with some jerry-can gas to get us home. I returned and did more interviews, and the piece ran in Metroland not long thereafter.

“Remember how you said you’d like to live out here?” asked Sherrie shortly after the piece appeared. “There’s a house for sale just down the street. Got lots of property, too.”

The siting commission gave up. But we’re still here.

                                                                                

Panorama of Glen
TIM LANE KNEELS by a row of leafy plants and detaches a ripe cucumber from each stalk. He works quickly: he has to. It’s hot and he’s tired and he’s working this farm alone. The property belongs to his grandparents, and puts him high on a scenic hill in the town of Glen in Montgomery Country. If he’s fast enough and can get the produce to market while the demand remains brisk, he might turn a profit this year. It might be as much as two or three thousand dollars.

He brings a young man’s passion to an old-fashioned job. He is constantly experimenting: with soil, with irrigation. He hopes to establish a hydroponic system to grow lettuce. He respects the land and is careful to use only organic substances for disease control.

His wife, Laurie, is expecting their first child any day now and is on a leave from her job as an accountant in Albany. A lot is riding on Tim’s enterprise in the field.

But he’s been handed another full time job, one which pays nothing and demands all the hours he can give to it. The dining room table in the little farmhouse is piled with books on two subjects: vegetable gardening and radioactive waste. This farm that the Lanes hope to buy is a few miles from one of the sites chosen by the State of New York as a possible home for a dump that would contain low-level radioactive waste.

To the engineers, it’s a “facility.” To the citizens of Montgomery County and other target counties throughout the state, it’s a nightmarish prospect that could cost them their property and health, not to mention their lives. Despite the mistakes of the past – mistakes that rendered areas of New York and many other states uninhabitable – a group of state-designated bureaucrats is asking the people of these rural areas to trust them.

The people, or at least a vocal contingent, are saying no. And these are the least radically-seeming folks you could imagine.

“We don’t get involved with too much of anything,” says Tim. “We usually keep to ourselves pretty much. I know I like to stay low-key, keep my mouth shut most of the time. But I’ve been getting a reputation for opening it a lot lately.”

 *

The United States produces about 50,000 cubic meters of commercial low-level radioactive waste each year. “Low level” is a mercurial category that can include such items as irradiated building components, such as are in contact with radioactive material within a nuclear reactor, clothing worn by those who handle such product, the resins and sludge from cleansing water in a reactor vessel – and even an entire nuclear power plant once it’s decommissioned.

Radioactivity is measured in curies, one unit of which comprises 37 billion radioactive emissions per second. But don’t let the big number fool you: one millionth of a curie can kill you.

Medical waste, which accounts for about one percent of the material in need of disposal, gives off much less than one curie, all told, per year; the “low-level” material from a power plant, on the other hand, can give off hundreds of curies per cubic meter.

Most of the country’s waste is transported to sites in Nevada, Washington and South Carolina, but a 1987 Federal law required every state to come up with a plan for disposing of its own product, either independently or in cooperation with other states.

While word of this activity crept into the back pages of the newspapers, it wasn’t until late last year that the bomb, so to speak, hit New York. A December announcement by the NYS Low-Level Radioactive Waste Siting Commission revealed a scattering of candidate areas in ten counties. One of which is a tract of 113 square miles within the towns of Glen, Root and Charleston in Montgomery County.

By September, the Commission hopes to narrow the list to fewer than six areas. In the meantime, each county has formed a group to oppose the dumpsite. And all of the county groups have joined a state-wide organization called “Don’t Waste New York” to better coordinate the fight. Based on the traditional system for locating undesirable material in a community, the eagerness of the opposition may have taken the Commission by surprise.

A handsome volume of many hundreds of pages was released by the Commission last December titled Candidate Area Identification Report, giving the siting criteria in exhaustive detail. There are topographic requirements, population requirements, microclimate requirements, all of it examined with colorful maps and plenty of charts and tables. But the question uppermost in the minds of the opposition is this: if the stuff will be contained so safely, why must it be placed in the midst of a sparsely-populated area?

“Simple,” says Joe Frank, chairman of the Montgomery Country chapter of Citizens Against Radioactive Dumping. “We fit the requirements of the Cerrell study.” Frank, a retired engineer, lives in Charleston on another of the county’s beautiful hills, also overlooking the proposed site.

He refers to the study conducted by Cerrell Associates of Los Angeles that identified the characteristics of a community unlikely to oppose an unpleasant facility. “They want an area that’s rural. And depressed, because the facility always promises jobs. They want an area that’s heavily Republican, preferably with lots of elderly people. They don’t want an area with any reputation for social activism, and a predominantly Catholic population is preferred because they’re used to following directions.”
   
*

The preselection process of identifying many sites is also part of the plan: this causes the NIMBYs to emerge. “Not in my backyard,” the individual communities cry, so the strategy is to go for GUMBY – gotta use many backyards. This has the potential for turning a community’s residents against one another. And, although the state can easily use its right of eminent domain to seize any land that’s required, the promise of an inflated fee here and there is a skillful ploy to turn neighbor against neighbor.

Joanne Tinc has been studying the matter of radioactive waste with vigor since she signed up with CARD. “My feeling is that a facility should have been developed that was proven to be the most secure and the most safe for the environment and the people,” she says. “That structure should have been then characterized to a site. How can you possibly determine what site is going to be the safest? You start with a structure that’s suitably sound, and then find a site for it. They’re doing everything backwards here because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

She and other CARD members questioned Siting Commission chairman Angelo Orazio about that, and were told only that the criteria had all been laid out. “He told us, ‘We’re developing a facility at the same time, but we can assure you that it’ll be safe, whatever we develop.’”

Claude Slemons, a neighboring farmer, scoffs with a snort. “I been to one meeting where they asked Orazio about drift-mining and he says, no, it’s gonna be an above-ground facility.” Claude is approaching 80. A lifetime of manual labor has toughened him even as he succumbs to the stockiness of age. “They don’t use the word ‘dump,’ they use the word ‘facility.’ Then they come down here and ol’ Dinkleberger or Dunkleberger or what-the-hell ever his name is, he comes down and he says, no, no, it’s going to be partly underground. Now, who the hell has got the right to say what’s what around here?’”

Jay Dunkleberger is executive director of the commission; he and Orazio have been characterized as a grim Laurel and Hardy who communicate poorly with one another – and with those who oppose their commission’s work. One of the most recent surprises was Orazio’s announcement last month that the proposed site would be taking in material 20 times more radioactive than was originally announced, for a total of 6.1 million curies. The revision was made to include material from some soon-to-be-dismantled nuclear power plants.

This cavalier spirit toward radioactive levels mirrors that of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission itself, which, in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, is working to revise the level known as BRC, or Below Regulatory Concern. Material thus classified may be tossed in a dumpster along with household garbage, and the proposed upward revision would allow about one-third of what’s presently classed as low-level waste to be so discarded.

The NRC believes that no reasonable danger exists, contradicting a finding by research scientists John Gofman and Arthur Tamplin, pioneers in the study of low-level radioactive waste. “All the evidence,” they concluded, “leads us to suspect that even the smallest quantities of radiation produce harm, both to this generation of humans and future generations.”

“They keep telling us it’s no more harmful than X-rays,” says Joanne’s husband, Charles. “Well, Joanne had a job X-raying dogs and cats when she used to work for a vet. The doctors told us she could never carry a baby to term. There was no real reason – they couldn’t give us an explanation. We figured, eventually, it was because of those X-rays. You gotta hold those animals to get ’em exposed. A person, you can just tell him to stand there, but a dog or cat – somebody’s got to hold em. She was just in high school, working for the vet after school. You can’t prove that it comes from that. It’s unknown. It’s the same thing with this dump. They don’t know. They’re just going to put it in here and see what happens. They’re going to use people around here as guinea pigs.”

Joanne and Charles now have two children – many miscarriages later. But she can point to them with pride as the reason for her activism.

Loretta Slemons is secretary of CARD, but she’s quick to assert that she and Claude would much rather be camping than worrying about committee meetings. “We worry about contamination of the water and the land, and the animals,” she says. “Not just the people. And it’s one of the reasons we were pressing for a baseline health study, so that the people would have something to fall back on.”

Joanne shakes her head. “Baseline,” she repeats. “You’d think they’d want to do it so that fifteen years from now they’d be able to legally protect themselves.”

Although the siting commission promised such a study, one enterprising CARD member intercepted an inter-office memo from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The Bureau of Radiation’s May 1989 Monthly Report stated that bureau members attended a meeting of the New York State Low-Level Waste Group’s Scientific Advisory Committee to discuss the feasibility of a baseline health study, and “the Committee determined that conducting such a study would end up not being scientifically valid given the small populations that would be evaluated.”

Tim Lane isn’t surprised by the duplicity. “We had a meeting in (the village of) Rural Grove with (commission engineer) Paul Mayo and Dunkleberger. Dr. Rockwell, who practices in Canajoharie, told them how this county already is affected by a high cancer rate. After a month or so we asked Mayo if followed it up, and he said he didn’t have to because all that stuff is already documented, he already researched those things. But we had to tell him: when you’re looking at cancer deaths, you may have someone who lived in Montgomery County for 60 years who then goes to Ellis Hospital and dies. Which means he’s listed as a Schenectady death. Everyone from Montgomery County who dies of cancer does so in Cooperstown and Schenectady. He said, ‘Yeah, well, that’s probably so. But we already documented all of that.’”

*

Walt Dufel already knows about the havoc the State will play with your livelihood and property. When the Thruway bridge collapsed over Schoharie Creek two years ago, a portion of his farmland was seized for use as a by-pass. Despite big promises to return the land in its original condition, what he got back was a dirtpile filled with cables and blacktop.

His belief in the cause is unflagging. When the Amsterdam Recorder refused to print a message he wanted to share, he bought ad space for it.

Nobody in this farming area could be characterized as a radical, although there are those wary souls who regard the citizen’s group with dismay.  “Some of my neighbors look at me like I’m nuts,” says Sherrie Dedicke. She and her husband, George, live in downtown Glen – although “downtown” only means that the buildings are a little closer together and there’s a feed store at the corner. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” she confesses, “but there’s no way I’m going to sit back and let them try to do something like this to me. I can trace my ancestry on one side of the family to Indians who once lived here in the Mohawk Valley, and on the other side to the early Dutch settlers. I owe them this fight.”

“‘Why would the state do anything to hurt you?’” Tim Lane echoes a question he often is asked. “‘Come on, they know what they’re doing, they’ve got it all together.’ I keep telling people: They really don’t and it’s been proven time and time and time again. People want to believe the experts. People say, ‘you don’t work on your car yourself, you take it down to the experts because they know what they’re doing.’” He shakes his head. “They’re just experts because someone pays them to work at that garage. We kind of feel it’s the same way with the state. They’re called experts, they’ve had a little schooling – but that doesn’t mean they know everything.’”

“Obviously they don’t know what they’re talking about!” says Loretta. “They came out now and said that it’s going to be 20 times more radioactive than what they expected – we’ve been screaming about it since day one, all right? These are the same people who can’t be straightforward with us, be honest with us, and don’t obviously know what they’re doing. These are the people who come to us and say, ‘Trust us. We’re going to build a safe site.’ They’re talking about building a container that’ll last 500 years and they can’t even put up a thruway bridge that’ll last 30.’”

Metroland Magazine, August 17, 1989

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