Report: Federal nuclear facility in Kansas City contaminated

Kansas City StarJanuary 23, 2011 

KANSAS CITY — Part of the Bannister Federal Complex is contaminated by beryllium that was used to make parts for nuclear bombs, according to a report obtained by The Kansas City Star.

But federal officials aren’t saying what that means.

It could mean that beryllium dust falls within federal safety standards — or that workers are being exposed to hazardous levels of beryllium, a highly toxic metal.

The internal report by a consultant does not detail the level of contamination in the 230,000-square-foot area of the plant, which has been the focus of growing alarm over pollution and worker health.

Yet another recent report, this one from a federal health office, raises even more concern about contamination levels. According to the report, an unusually high number of Kansas City plant workers have become ill from exposure to beryllium, a carcinogen that can cause several diseases.

Still, federal officials who oversee the plant have refused to give details about the beryllium contamination and cleanup efforts despite months of questions from The Star.

Instead, the only responses about contamination came from a spokeswoman for the plant’s private contractor, Honeywell Federal Manufacturing & Technologies, who said the plant follows a complex set of beryllium regulations.

Some regulatory agencies said they had been provided no evidence of a cleanup, however.

At least three elected officials said the public and workers needed answers about beryllium at the plant.

“None of our federal employees should be in places that are not safe,” said Danny Rotert, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat.

The agency overseeing the plant operations needs to either release documents or better explain exactly what kind of cleanup has been done, Rotert said.

Cleaver wants the Environmental Protection Agency to expand its ongoing investigations into those areas.

Kansas City Councilman John Sharp, whose 6th District includes the complex, said the time for secrecy was over.

“Something clearly seems amiss,” said Sharp, who has been concerned about workers’ health and the future of the polluted site.

The refusal of a federal agency and Honeywell “to release information that has been requested makes everyone suspicious of what really has gone on at that facility,” Sharp said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said workers needed to be assured they were working in a clean environment.

“It is of the utmost importance that the federal government be open and transparent about the safety of their facilities and the health of their workers,” McCaskill said.

Exposure to beryllium, a light but strong metal, can lead to chronic beryllium disease or lung cancer. Chronic beryllium disease can scar the lungs but it also may affect lymph nodes, liver, kidneys and heart. It can take as long as 30 years to develop.

The federal government acknowledges that workers at the Kansas City plant have gotten chronic beryllium disease or lung cancer. The government has now paid more than $28 million in compensation and medical benefits for toxic exposures, including beryllium.

But beryllium cleanups can be complex and expensive.

Beryllium is difficult to detect because it doesn’t smell and cannot be seen or felt. Studies done by Lisa Maier with National Jewish Health and her colleagues show that 0.2 micrograms of beryllium dust per cubic meter of air would be equivalent to roughly a pencil tip in a box 40 feet tall and the size of a football field,

Even that standard, however, doesn’t protect many people, said Maier, who said beryllium was a risk at any detectable level.

Disputed space

The Bannister Federal Complex has long been under fire because of concerns about toxic contamination and pollution spills from making bomb parts for 60 years. But several agencies are involved at the complex, which contributes to the veil of secrecy and confusion that hangs over the massive area near Troost Avenue and Bannister Road in south Kansas City.

“The place is a bureaucratic nightmare,” Rotert said.

The players, most simply put:

•Department of Energy, which includes the National Nuclear Security Administration that for several years has overseen the manufacturing area of the plant.

•Honeywell, the nuclear security agency’s private contractor that operates the manufacturing area.

•General Services Administration, the federal agency that owns about 40 percent of the complex. GSA’s area includes offices for its staff and other federal agencies.

Many environmentalists, elected officials and current and former workers have questioned what some believe are an inordinate number of cancer cases at GSA, which has admitted providing misleading information about health risks. The EPA has launched investigations.

The newest report about beryllium focuses on a 230,000-square-foot area, which is about 10 percent of the manufacturing plant. The area is owned by GSA but has been used by the nuclear security administration for decades.

The cleanliness of that area has taken on even more importance because in late 2012 the Kansas City plant will begin a move to a new $687 million campus about eight miles south of its current location.

As a result, GSA has been studying what to do with the 230,000-square-foot area, which is just on the other side of the wall from its offices. The area is about the size of four football fields. GSA has been advised by its real estate broker that beryllium in the area needs to be cleaned up to non-detectable level to be able to lease or sell it, said Angela Brees, a GSA spokeswoman.

GSA and the nuclear security agency have been negotiating over a cleanup for about eight years, documents show.

At some point the space was converted to non-beryllium manufacturing and storage, according to the nuclear security agency. About 15 employees still work in that area.

Tanya Snyder, the Honeywell spokeswoman, responded in e-mails to The Star that the area had not required cleaning except for one small beryllium process. Snyder, who said she was speaking for the nuclear security agency as well, would not further detail the process or the cleanup.

One major sticking point between the nuclear security agency and GSA: the level of cleanup.

“The standards for what people consider clean is where the disconnect comes in,” said Charlie Cook, another GSA spokesman. “They want to use one standard, we want to use another standard.”

GSA has asked the nuclear security agency to clean up beryllium so that it can’t be detected. But agency plant managers only wanted to clean up the site to 0.2 micrograms of beryllium per 100 square centimeters of surface area, said Brees of GSA.

Although 0.2 micrograms is an energy department standard, GSA was concerned that was too high to sell or lease the property.

Contamination report

The recent beryllium contamination report came about because GSA wanted to know its options for the property.

In 2008, GSA contracted with Keres Consulting for an internal study. In its report, the consultant said the primary contaminant in the 230,000 square feet was beryllium powder, based on reports of the nuclear security administration.

The consultant’s report did not list a level of the contamination but noted that the energy department “has not provided a plan for the remediation” of the space.

Snyder said she would not comment on the report because the nuclear security administration and Honeywell officials had not read it nor had they talked to the Keres consultants.

The Keres firm did not respond to questions about the report. GSA confirms it received the report, but officials said they don’t know the level of contamination.

GSA, EPA and Missouri state environmental officials all said they had never received evidence of a beryllium cleanup.

Questions also remain about how thorough a beryllium cleanup was done throughout the rest of the plant.

Ten years ago, testing had shown there was significant contamination and many workers had been exposed. The federal government ordered the plant to clean up excessive levels of beryllium dust, and energy department officials said the cleanup was complete.

But it will be difficult to know how complete the cleanup was until agencies there begin working together and telling the public what they’re doing, Cleaver’s office said.

“We have serious environmental issues we need to deal with at that site,” Rotert said.

Health risks

A second report by the energy department’s own Office of Health, Safety and Security makes the contamination question even more serious.

The 2009 report said the number of beryllium-related illnesses was higher than expected considering the limited amount of beryllium that plant officials said was used over several decades.

The report said cases at Kansas City and two other plants “are not well understood.”

In past year, monitoring of workers for beryllium exposure was limited, while increased monitoring in recent years has not always identified the sources of exposures, the report said.

The report recommended more extensive monitoring.

Although the nuclear security agency and Honeywell officials had no comment, they did point to an audit that was ordered by the energy department’s inspector general last year because of the seriousness of the health issues that employees had raised.

The audit said the Kansas City plant had implemented controls to protect the environment and workers from exposure.

“Further, while we cannot provide absolute assurance, the results of our work indicated that the systems were working as intended,” the audit said.

Rickey Hass, deputy inspector for audits and inspections, said auditors reviewed the 2009 health report and looked to see whether the Kansas City plant implemented the report’s recommendations.

“They changed their testing and increased their monitoring,” Hass said.

Both the report and the audit looked at the plant in general, not just the 230,000 square feet.

Hass said the beryllium issue was difficult because the period of time that beryllium has been used has covered decades and standards and regulations have changed.

So it is hard to know when or how the illnesses were caused.

“It’s still not well understood,” Hass said of the Kansas City plant beryllium cases.

A colleague at National Jewish Health, which is considered by some to be the top respiratory hospital in the country, agreed its workers shouldn’t be in an area that hasn’t been cleaned at the very least to the 0.2 standard unless they’re wearing protective gear.

That kind of cleanup isn’t easy, said Mike Van Dyke, an industrial hygienist.

“It takes a lot of time, and a lot of money and lots and lots and lots of samples,” he said.

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