The site is located at 1000 Harvard Avenue, just south of Steelyard Commons. If you take the Jennings Freeway between I-71 and I-480 to work, you drive by it twice a day. As just another smattering of nondescript, rundown, and abandoned all-brick buildings, it really didn’t stand out much from the rest of Cleveland’s stagnant industrial sprawl, and as of early December, it’s even less remarkable as a pile of rubble. However, despite its apparently ordinary appearance, the site is fenced off and under 24-hour security surveillance to prevent public access. That’s because during the second World War, the Harshaw Chemical facility helped enrich uranium as part of the Manhattan Project, the secret government program that developed the first atomic bomb.
The site’s history is unsettling, to say the least: episodes of prolonged and unsafe radiation exposure, long-forgotten hazardous material, contamination and leaks that went undiscovered for more than half a century, and all sorts of other cringe-worthy details. Try not to squirm too much.
Bulk uranium enrichment started at the Harshaw Chemical Company in 1942, when hundreds of pounds of uranium ore were processed each day as part of the atomic weapons research program. In 1944, the U.S. War Department ordered the facility to dramatically increase the amount of uranium ore it was processing to a whopping 3,000 pounds per day, and the company duly complied. However, as the dangers of radiation exposure and hazardous waste came to light, enrichment gradually slowed, finally stopping in 1953. The facility was shut down entirely in 1958 as part of the Department of Energy’s Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP). Chemical processing continued in select areas of the plant until 1998, and chemical giant BASF purchased the dormant site in 2006, electing to leave it inoperative.
Aerial photos from 1946 reveal a drainage ditch emptying into the Cuyahoga that begins less than 100 yards from the building that handled most of the uranium, but it is, of course, merely speculation to say whether that actually posed any danger. It should also be noted that radioactive dust, blown easily by wind and washed away even more easily by water, is a primary concern of the subsequent investigations.
It’s also worth highlighting that the facility’s open storage area sat right on the riverbank, but whether any radioactive material was stored in this manner is unknown, although a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) report from 2007 (on file at the Brooklyn branch of the Cuyahoga Library) suggests the possibility. However, since the plant dealt primarily with hazardous chemicals, radioactive or not, the stored material was very possibly something we wouldn’t want in our water supply. To digress further, chemical processing plants like the Harshaw Chemical Company have dotted the Cuyahoga River shores for over a century, which might have had something to do with Cleveland’s infamous “burning river.”
Regardless, further aerial photographs show substantial amounts of unidentifiable material flowing directly from the middle of the site into the river throughout the uranium processing period, as well as before and after, to the point that an island, complete with vegetation, formed temporarily in the 1960s just offshore of the facility. Again, whether the sediment was dangerous or not (as well as how much of it was carried from upstream) is impossible to know, but its proximity to the plant’s storage yard certainly raises some concerns. It may be of note that the shoreline opposite the plant experienced “vegetation stress” (layman’s terms: the goddamn plants and trees all died) between 1945 and 1948, the height of the uranium processing (and possibly after).
It is estimated that around 1,500 employees worked at the facility while uranium was being processed, and around 10,000 throughout the site’s entire history. In the late 1940s, according to a 2000 USA Today article, medical officials reported high levels of radiation exposure amongst at least a third of the employees. In certain areas of the plant, it was found that “concentrations of radioactive uranium dust in the air reached 200 times the safety limits of the day,” and that was before the dangers of radiation exposure were fully realized. Reports steadily grew worse as operations continued and scientific understanding of radiation progressed, and the article alleges that both the Harshaw Chemical Company and the government suppressed these findings.
The same USA Today article included a tragic interview with John Smith, a Harshaw retiree who once worked on the uranium-processing operation. Smith was quoted as saying, “Most all the guys are dead now. Cancer, kidneys, lung problems, you see a lot of that,” and went on to say, “I feel lucky to be alive, but I’m worried. It makes you bitter, them knowing about the risks and not telling. If I’d known, I would have quit.” More than $5.5 million was eventually paid by the federal government to the families of the exposed workers at Harshaw Chemical as compensation.
Tasked with cleaning up hazardous sites created by the Manhattan Project, the USACE conducted numerous investigations (along with EPA and various other agencies) in the decades following the plant’s closure. All of them found evidence of widespread radiation contamination. In the decades following its closure, sections of the facility were periodically demolished and various contaminated materials were removed. However, the process was incredibly slow: according to a Cleveland.com article from 2010, hazardous materials were taken away as recently as 2008.
In 2007, USACE concluded overall that the site was safe to the general public, but their findings were hardly reassuring. The report says that “over a person’s lifetime, with 25 to 30 years of daily exposure on the site, there are long-term human health risks related to the radiological contamination at the site,” and that “uranium is present above background levels in buildings, soils, sediments, and groundwater.” Levels vary with location, depth, etc., but the report concluded that, overall, there were “no unacceptable risks identified for human health or ecological receptors.” The word “unacceptable” in that sentence is a tad unsettling. Furthermore, no readings were gathered (or at least not published) from the surrounding non-Harshaw-owned properties, which include a bar and grill right across the street from the site and residential neighborhoods just blocks away.
Radiation safety has always been controversial, all the way back to the discovery of x-rays in the 1890s. The inherent conflict between the usefulness of the associated technologies and the dangers of implementing them mirrors the type of arguments we see surrounding climate change and financial interests can color the debate. Science can never seem to prove the danger of a technology to the satisfaction of the parties who benefit financially (or otherwise) from utilizing it, so the debate stalls. Meanwhile, average citizens can only sit, wait, and hope that nothing out of their control negatively affects them.
The facility at 1000 Harvard Ave. was not the only Cleveland site that handled radioactive materials. According to company correspondences from 1958 that were included in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report, after Harshaw Chemical was ordered to cease uranium enrichment, materials were removed and temporarily stored at the company’s headquarters located at 1945 E. 79th St. The same USACE report mentioned results from a 1985 survey that found evidence of radiation contamination in several rooms of that building, which, at the time, was owned by the Cleveland Clinic.
The total demolition of the facility was ordered relatively recently in 2014. This is likely due to the fact that the recently constructed Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath, an approximately 100 mile bicycle route extending from Cleveland to New Philadelphia, was found to be passing right by the Harshaw facility. Understandably, this renewed the already long-existing safety concerns and prompted more investigations, and those concerns appear to have been well founded: in May of 2014, the EPA discovered that the site was leaking radioactively contaminated water right into the Cuyahoga River.
Shockingly, the only legal violation was that it was happening without a permit, suggesting that in some places it’s okay to dump uranium and other radioactive material into a water supply as long as the government signs off on it. Regardless, it was a detail that prompted another pause in the facility’s total demolition. When asked how long the leak persisted, an EPA spokesman referred us to an existing press release (which does not address the question, unfortunately) and responded, “EPA declines to comment further on a pending enforcement issue.”
The recent, total, and final demolition process began in 2014, and it has been ongoing for over a year. Site G, allegedly the most dangerous of the contaminated sites, was torn down first. Footage taken by an activist at OrganicSlant.com showed workers with (and some without) protective suits gradually tearing away at the building with heavy machinery. The Towpath is scheduled to be rerouted away from the site by 2019, and according to the same EPA spokesman, “EPA anticipates that BASF will complete the remediation required under the RCRA Order by 2020.”
It should be noted that many (if not most) of the contaminated sites have been renovated or demolished, brought up to existing safety standards, and declared safe by the relevant government agencies. They really do seem to be doing everything in their power to safely deal with an extraordinarily complex and delicate situation that is the consequence of past ignorance to the dangers of handling and processing radioactive material. “For perspective, there are more than 3,700 corrective action sites in the country,” the spokesman at the EPA pointed out, and this number includes over 250 in Ohio alone. The scope and scale of the undertaking is truly massive, and contrary to what the conspiracy-minded among us might tell you, our government is “only human.”
However, there is no way to fully address the damage that has already been done by decades of leaks, exposure, oversights, etc. Furthermore, safety standards and dangers to public health have been underreported or underestimated in the past (both accidentally and deliberately), so we, the humble and long-suffering citizenry, have no choice but to take the agencies at their words that the sites do not, in fact, pose a threat. And more still, though the contamination levels fall within the USACE’s range of “acceptable risks” to public safety, there is nothing that can be done about the contaminated soil and groundwater that seeps into the Cuyahoga River and ultimately Lake Erie, the city’s source of drinking water.
Meanwhile, all we can do is sit, wait, and hope that a 200-foot-tall lizard doesn’t rise out of the lake and attack the city.
The USACE did not respond to our inquiries regarding recent developments at the site.
P.S. – If any of this made you a little uncomfortable, imagine how the Japanese must feel about the still-ongoing Fukushima disaster.