ANNAPOLIS – A chemical leak at Dickerson’s Neutron Products plant this week has renewed a years-long fight against a facility some say is crippling the town.
A rupture from an overheated tank Wednesday blew a large hole in the ceiling of the building and damaged the walls. No injuries were reported and there was no explosion or leaking radioactive material, but that news hardly consoled residents.
“It’s just a bad stain on our otherwise very peaceful community,” said Carol Oberdorfer, president of the Dickerson Community Association.
Oberdorfer, along with Delegate Jean Cryor, R-Montgomery, and Montgomery County Councilman Michael Knapp, is organizing an emergency meeting to address the plant.
“People are worried,” said Oberdorfer, “because this is part of a long history.”
A court order closed the plant’s radioactive cobalt 60 manufacturing operation in 2002, following multiple violations and heavy opposition, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
But Neutron Products continues to store the cobalt and produce chemicals that sterilize medical equipment and treat wastewater.
“Fortunately, that explosion was not in the radioactive area,” said Oberdorfer, “but what if it happened closer?”
“I think clearly this is a situation that’s got to be resolved,” said Knapp, who called the leak the “galvanizing event” that could lead the state or federal government to action.
“Any time I interact with the community in Dickerson, that’s just kind of an ongoing thorn in their side,” said Knapp.
Though the leak blew a 10-foot-by-10-foot hole in the ceiling, said Bill Ransohoff, plant manager, little hazardous material escaped.
“I think it’s an isolated incident,” he said, “and our corrective action is going to include preventive action so we can get a level of assurance it won’t happen again.”
He said the company has had trouble disposing of its cobalt, as directed in the 2002 order, because it’s too expensive.
Cobalt 60, used for cancer therapy, has also been known to increase the risk of cancer.
“The ownership of the company has really kept a gun to everyone’s head,” said Cryor. The company, she said, insists taxpayers would be responsible for cleaning up the facility if it went out of business.
But Cryor said the Environmental Protection Agency could actually take over Neutron cleanup if the company left.
“If they were selling shoes up there and had this kind of difficulty, nobody would care,” she said. “The problem is they’re not selling shoes.”
In 1989, the company drew criticism when an employee’s clothing set off a radiation alarm at another plant in New York.
“This is one of those very protracted, long-term problems which the state was initially dropping the ball on, dropping the ball on,” said Dolores Milmoe, Maryland conservation advocate for the Audubon Naturalist Society, which had joined with Oberdorfer years ago to fight the plant.
“But obviously things are amiss if you have a hole in the roof after an explosion at a very dangerous facility,” she said.
Authorities closed the portion of the building, as they continue to investigate.
County and state officials inspected the site for 14 hours Wednesday, said Peter Piringer, public information officer for the Montgomery County fire department.
“We were just taking every precaution.”
The reason the 300-gallon tank overheated, he said, is still a mystery.
“We’re just kind of holding our breath,” said Oberdorfer, “until that type of thing happens in an area of the building that could really spew those particles all over our neighborhood.”