Radium contamination mystery lurks in Cheswick

by Mary Ann Thomas, originally posted on December 1, 2016


While the state decides what to do with radioactive contamination at the former Keystone Metals Reduction in Cheswick, the company is as much a mystery today as when it operated more than 90 years ago.

The state Department of Environmental Protection found scant information on the company located near Cheswick Avenue and Pittsburgh Street. Nothing is known about the extent of waste the company created while extracting radium-226, which causes cancer, from previously milled uranium ore.

DEP has no records of disposal by Keystone. And back in the 1920s, the federal government didn’t regulate the production of radium, according to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Agency.

“DEP does not know where the material ended up,” Neil Shader, a DEP spokesman, said in an email.

What is known is that 6,500 cubic yards of dirt contaminated by radium-226 sits behind the North American Fencing Corp. It has tainted groundwater under the site, which is only 400 feet away 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.

The DEP learned in 2010 from old newspaper stories and other documents that the site was possibly contaminated.

Tests verified radioactive contamination on about 3.5 acres of property mostly owned by North American Fencing Corp. and a smaller portion owned by Neumeyer Environmental Services Inc.

Six years later, the department is moving ahead with a plan to address the contamination. It will hold a hearing at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the Cheswick Borough Building to tell the public about a plan to cap and keep on site the radium-226 contamination. The cancer-causing agent has a half life of 1,600 years.


Soil tests have detected two areas of elevated radiation, with one reading 13 times higher than federal standards. Even higher concentrations of radioactivity were found in the follow-up surveys of 57 soil borings.

But there is not an immediate risk to human health, because the contamination is under a layer of soil, according to Shader.

However, radium-226 ground water contamination is a concern, although so far, it is limited to the water underneath the former Keystone site, according to DEP studies.

The DEP turned up a sample of radium-226 in one of Harmar’s drinking water wells that was more than six times the federal legal standard of 5 picocuries per liter, according to Shader. DEP retested the well and never returned results greater than 1 picocurie per liter, he added.

But even that is too much, according to environmental watchdog Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director for the environmental group Clean Water Action.

While the Safe Drinking Water Act prescribes legal limits on radium exposure, the maximum contaminant goal is zero.

“Often with that kind of contamination that is close to a drinking source, it’s a matter of time before you’re not going to be able to use that water supply,” Arnowitt said.

But he said the pace of DEP’s testing and developing its cleanup plans at the Cheswick site is on par with how the agency moves, especially when there is not an immediate health danger.

There is not an easy solution to the ground water issues at the site, he added, but waiting to deal with the problem will be costlier in the future.

A representative from the North American Fencing Corp. declined comment until after DEP’s meeting, while the owner of Neumeyer Environmental Services said he wasn’t concerned about the waste.


DEP is confident it has identified all the radioactive contamination on site, according to Shader. But Bob Alvarez, a former policy adviser to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, and a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank, is concerned about the lack of information about where the radioactive material that caused the contamination was disposed.

“There weren’t disposal or cleanup standards then,” he said. “It had to go somewhere.”

Shader said DEP will investigate any new information relating to contamination at the site.

The plant and its handling of radium-226 remained a mystery even after it went out of business in the 1920s. Cheswick Council President Paul Jack had heard about the radium plant in the 1980s, but little was known locally about the operations even then.

“It’s a novelty,” he said. “You have a 1920s facility, and now this is developing.”

Given the lack of information, he said wants residents to have to time to learn what’s going on and to express their concerns.


Although Keystone Reduction was considered a small operation, it was one of only six companies in the country producing radium, according to the “Mineral Resources of the United States 1917.”

A so-called miracle substance, radium-226 made watch faces glow, promised good health and was used in a number of consumer goods from kitchen ware to condoms.

A 1920s advertisement boasted that radium was the most valuable mineral in the world, with a speck, the size of pinhead, worth $2,000.

Historic state publications noted that a “new company,” Keystone Metals Reduction, produced radium in 1921, employing 15 men in 1922.

The first known record of Keystone was a reference to its likely predecessor, the United States Metals Reduction Co., which shipped a railroad car of ore in 1917 from its mine in the Dolores River Valley, Utah, to an “experimental” plant in Cheswick. The company had a plant outside of Cisco, Utah, to treat radium bearing ores, according to The Mines Handbook of 1920.

An explosion caused by high-pressure equipment killed a worker, blew the roof off the small Cheswick plant and showered the site with acid in March 1921, according to reports in the Valley Daily News.

Its operations were short-lived as the company folded sometime in the early to mid-1920s.

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