DEP proposes to cap radioactive site in Cheswick

by Mary Ann Thomas, originally posted on November 19, 2016


Al Pater Jr. was never told about the radioactive contamination near his home.

“I’ve lived here since 1997, and I never knew,” said Pater, 46, of Cheswick as he walked his dog along Spruce Street, talking to neighbors while they raked leaves.

The contamination has been in Cheswick longer than Pater.

Since the 1920s, radium-226 — once used to paint the faces of watches and clocks so the numbers would glow in the dark — has lurked in the soil where the former Keystone Metals Reduction plant once stood near Cheswick Avenue and Pittsburgh Street.

The material is known to cause cancer and a host of other ailments.

How much radium is in the soil in Cheswick isn’t known.

State Department of Environmental Protection soil surveys detected two areas of elevated radiation, with one reading as high as 66.4 picocuries per gram — 13 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency safety standard of 5 picocuries per gram.

And it’s not just in the soil. Tests show radium in the groundwater about 400 feet from drinking water wells used by the Municipal Authority of Harmar. The authority provides water to 3,000 households in Harmar, Cheswick and Springdale Township.

Authority and DEP officials, however, say the radium is not a threat to drinking water.


The municipal authority’s three drinking water wells near the contamination were drilled in 1945 and 1956, according to Joseph McCollum, operations administrator for Harmar Water Authority.

DEP has been conducting quarterly tests of Harmar’s drinking water wells for several years.

All samples except one have been below the maximum detection level. Neil Shader, a DEP spokesman, did not immediately know the level of radium in the abnormal test result.

“We are aware of the extent of the contamination and are confident that it is not spreading,” he said.

The agency is trying to determine whether additional monitoring wells are needed to ensure that drinking water is safe, Shader added.

McCollum said the authority has not had a problem with radium. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act and the Allegheny County Health Department require that the agency test for the contaminant every nine years, he said.

The authority has been testing for radium since at least the 1990s and has not detected any, McCollum said. Its last test was in 2015.

“We feel that contamination has no direct impact on our water supply currently, and that the DEP is handling the situation and they have been in communication with us the entire time,” McCollum said.


The contamination was found and investigated in 2010 by DEP, mostly on land owned by the North American Fencing Corp. It’s commercial property and is not accessible to the public.

The DEP has not said how it found out about the contamination.

Richard Holsing, president of North American Fencing Corp., said he doesn’t want to comment on the matter until after a DEP public meeting on Dec. 1.

The DEP has spent several years assessing the site to determine how much of it is contaminated, installing monitoring wells and coming up with various options for what to do about the radium.

The DEP’s preferred option is to “cap” the roughly 6,500 cubic yards of radium-contaminated soil with several feet of clean soil at a cost of $1.6 million.

The radium would not be removed.

Most of the site is surrounded by quiet, residential streets with neat, well-kept ranch homes.

Pater estimates his home in the Meadow Court housing plan is a few hundred yards from the contamination.

“That’s scary to learn now,” he said.

He and other residents who live near the site plan to attend the Dec. 1 meeting, when they can comment on DEP’s plans to deal with the radium. Pater said he wants to know more about potential health consequences and the impact on property values.

The DEP investigated four possibilities for dealing with the radium:

• Take no action;

• Restrict the site to industrial use and cap it with as much as 6 feet of cover at a cost of $1.6 million;

• Remove contaminated soil at a cost of $8.6 million; or

• Remove all of the contamination, including contaminated groundwater, at a cost of $9.7 million.

The DEP wants to cap the site because it complies with regulatory requirements “at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable time frame with minimum risk to the community during remediation,” according to an agency analysis.

“The questions here are how much radium-226 was there to begin with, how much is there now and how deep and how far has it gone?” said John Stolz, a biology professor at Duquesne University and director of the school’s Center for Environmental Research and Education.

Stolz said whatever course of action is taken needs to be clearly explained to the public.

Residents should know that the cleanup strategy is not only cost effective but will prevent the contamination of local drinking water as well, he said.

“Given that radium-226 is a long-lasting contaminant, you want to assure it won’t be a problem for the drinking water in future.”


Keystone Metals Reduction, a Delaware corporation, bought the Cheswick site in 1921 to extract radium-226 from milled iron ore, producing luminous paint for watches, clocks and other instrumentation.

The company dumped waste on-site.

Female factory workers, known as “Radium Girls,” would dip thin brushes in radium-226, then use their lips to point the tips of the brushes so they could paint the watch and clock faces, making the numbers and hands glow.

Their plight was documented in the book “Radium Girls” by Claudia Clark.

At the time, according to the book, radium was a wondrous, glowing material that wasn’t considered dangerous.

The women’s work clothes often would glow while hanging in closets, no matter how often they were washed. Some of the women even spread the radium on their faces if they were going out to make themselves glow and impress their dates.

Years later, however, the women developed cancers and other health problems.

In its investigation, the DEP found little documentation on Keystone Metals Reduction.

Keystone went out of businesses in the early 1920s, and the site was subdivided and portions used for a number of businesses, including a lumber yard and car dealership, according to Andy Bock, Cheswick’s borough manager.

Fred Neumeyer, who owns some of the property that is contaminated by radium, supports the DEP’s proposal to cap the contamination with a layer of soil and restrict use of the property. He uses the site for a warehouse, truck repair and storage of equipment for his environmental remediation business.

“When I bought the three parcels here, I understood (the contamination issues),” Neumeyer said. “It’s what I do.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or

Learn More