Patty Ameno has assembled more than 3 million documents in her search for answers about nuclear contamination in the Apollo area.
Alumna’s Battle to Rid Hometown of Nuclear Waste Is 26 Years Old and Counting
By Chauncey Ross
April 16, 2015
Appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of IUP Magazine.
For Patty Ameno, it hasn’t been about fame—although she has earned a reputation for her dogged fight to rid her western Pennsylvania hometown of one of America’s most infamous atomic waste dumps.
It hasn’t been a quest for power, either. Yet a government regulator once told Ameno that a priest warned him “not to mess with” her.
She said money hasn’t been the driving force behind her gritty battle against daunting opponents.
Instead, Ameno has wanted more than anything to make her town clean and safe once again for future generations.
That’s why she has waged an all-consuming campaign that has won more than $100 million in settlements, judgments, and government compensation for Apollo-area people who have suffered financially and physically and have even lost their lives because of radioactive contamination to the environment generated decades ago by a company called NUMEC.
Ameno, a 1986 graduate of IUP, and her family lived a scant 100 feet across Pennsylvania Route 66 from a former steel mill that had been converted for processing fuel for US Navy ships and submarines. “The word nuclear never came up,” Ameno said. “So we just thought, ‘fuel for Navy ships.’”
But as years passed, negative effects became apparent. High rates of illness, especially cancer, were recorded in the area, and Ameno is among the statistics.
Left: Patty Ameno outside of her childhood home, across Pennsylvania Route 66 from the former site of the NUMEC military fuel plant in Apollo (Photo by Keith Boyer); Right: Ameno on Easter Sunday, 1960. The NUMEC plant is in the background (Photo courtesy Patty Ameno).
“Since 1997, my head had to be opened twice for one brain tumor,” she said. She suffered uterine cancer, she still has a second brain tumor, and the plant is responsible, she said. “But I’m one of the lucky ones, because there have been parents who have buried their children.”
The extent of the nuclear contamination was more than Ameno and others in Apollo had expected. The plant was allowed to bury radioactive waste on a 44-acre shallow land disposal area in Parks Township, about three miles away, where the company also operated a commercial plutonium processing facility. Today, some officials believe the actual size of the disposal area—Ameno says it’s more than four times larger—and the amount of waste buried there have not been accurately calculated.
Ameno’s struggle has been against the companies that ran the military fuel plant and the plutonium facility, which shared the disposal grounds. NUMEC (Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation) operated the plants first, followed briefly by Atlantic Richfield Company. Babcock & Wilcox Company took over and, as BWX Technologies, is responsible for the site today.
Ameno’s fight also has been with the US Atomic Energy Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which set the rules for the site.
Perhaps Ameno’s biggest nemesis of all is time. The radioactivity in and around Apollo had a 30-year head start on her.
NUMEC opened shop in 1957, when nuclear power was in its infancy. The Navy launched the first atomic-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, in 1954, and the Navy fuel plant was started the same year the AEC opened a nuclear power plant in Shippingport, Beaver County, as a demonstration project.
Meantime, Ameno, a first-generation American in an Italian immigrant family, was growing up with only a dream of attending college and as an unlikely candidate to battle what had become the establishment in Apollo.
“In high school, I remember sitting in my English class, and I would look out the window, and [the teacher] said, ‘If you think it, it’ll happen.’” Ameno said. “I used to tell her I wanted to go to school, but you know, in an Italian family, girls weren’t going to school. I was born in ’51. My dad was Sicilian, and girls didn’t go to college—they got married.”
Ameno graduated from high school in Apollo in 1969, soon married, and soon divorced.
Then, with many in her family thinking it good to support the military because of the fuel plant in Apollo, Ameno enlisted in the Navy in 1971 and served in the Naval Investigative Service, which later became the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).
In 1975, she was catastrophically injured during a search-and-rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea. During an airdrop of medical supplies, Ameno fell 40 feet from a helicopter onto the deck of a ship and was flown out among the injured she was trying to help. A priest gave her last rites, her injuries were so serious.
Ameno left the Navy in 1982 and enrolled at IUP on the GI Bill.
“The Navy paved the way for me to go. If I wouldn’t have been in the service, I wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in hell of going to college,” Ameno said.
At IUP, a staff of criminology professors fed a hungry mind. Victor McGuire, Joe Bogan, and Imogene Moyer left lifelong impressions. So did Indiana County Judge William Martin, then an attorney at an Indiana law firm where Ameno did an internship.
“The one thing I always wanted to do was learn. And I have felt…like a sponge, an insatiable sponge, and there was so much there at IUP,” Ameno said. “This was like a gateway into thinking. It was like having a flashlight and going to LED floodlights in critical thinking.
“My life on campus was fantastic,” she continued. “It was a very satisfying and enriching and rewarding experience that really solidified the road for me ahead. Without it, I would not have been picked up by the Defense Department as a criminal federal investigator.”
Ameno graduated at age 35 with a bachelor’s degree in criminology. The US Department of Defense hired her as an investigator, but she put in for retirement in 1988 and moved back from California to Armstrong County. The time was right for Ameno to start the mission she believes she was guided to take on. “I have listened to my inner voice,” she said.
The irony of using skills she developed as a government investigator to dig into government business is not lost on Ameno.
Poised to seek the truth about the nuclear material, demand accountability, and make her community safe for its people again, she enlisted topnotch lawyers and experts in health, energy, and environmental safety to her cause. She navigated public offices and open records to assemble more than 3 million documents that helped her to make her stand.
In the first of her court fights, Ameno refused to bargain with prosecutors in 1993 on charges that she disrupted a public meeting of Apollo Borough Council. She was accused of asking too many questions about the radioactivity at the plant. She was acquitted of the charge, then filed her first civil suit against Apollo Borough. Ameno took a small, out-of-court settlement and donated the money to pediatric cancer research.
In the mid-1990s, Ameno said, she organized community groups in Westmoreland and Elk counties to successfully block the transfer of radioactive waste from the Kiski Valley sewage treatment plant to landfills in those areas.
When she threatened to sue the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for not following its own rules, DEP handed the responsibility for the contaminated sewage lagoon back to Babcock & Wilcox.
During a 1990s meeting with DEP officials, an agency regulator from New Alexandria took Ameno aside. “He told me, ‘My priest told me not to mess with you,’” she said. The man said his priest had given Ameno her last rites—which she ended up not needing—and said to leave her alone. The priest was the Navy chaplain who blessed Ameno 20 years earlier in the Mediterranean.
Ameno also won Congressman John P. Murtha and his staff as allies. Murtha arranged a $5-million study of the dump site and then, in 2001, had the US Army Corps of Engineers placed in charge of the site—the first time jurisdiction of any site had been pulled from the NRC.
“There is no amount of money that is ever going to replace a mother’s child, or give somebody back their health. But it gives them a feeling, a sense of accountability and vindication.“
In 2007, Ameno testified at a workers’ compensation hearing of the federal Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health, which then awarded $28 million, a figure Ameno says is still growing, to former Babcock & Wilcox workers who became ill while working in the plants.
Bigger yet was the settlement of a lawsuit against the plant owners, who agreed in 2007 and 2009 to compensate more than 360 people in Apollo and Parks Township about $90 million for property damage, illness, and deaths attributable to exposure to radiation.
“There is no amount of money that is ever going to replace a mother’s child, or give somebody back their health,” Ameno said. “But it gives them a feeling, a sense of accountability and vindication. And in a lot of cases, it’s for people, families, where the breadwinner got sick. They lost jobs, had no benefits, and ultimately lost their homes.”
For Ameno, naming the plant’s victims is a personal thing.
Her brother-in-law was one. “He had to have two kidney transplants, years of dialysis in between. He had prostate cancer, he had quadruple bypass, but never smoked a cigarette in his life,” according to Ameno. Beryllium disease and pancreatic cancer killed him, she said.
There was Stacia Bellfield, a two-year-old who died of a malignant brain tumor. “And what that child had to endure…without wondering or thinking about what she was going to be when she grew up,” Ameno said. “There’s a lot of this. And when I talk about parents burying their children, it haunts me.”
For Ameno, the radiation brought the scourge of cancer and caused two miscarriages. But her obsessive fight to clean up the Apollo-area sites cost her more.
“I lost my family behind what I do,” Ameno said, including in that statement a partner of more than 25 years. “I was there at home, but I wasn’t there. I was into the documents, I was on the phone, I was talking to experts who were bringing me up to snuff. But I would do it all again.”
She quotes playwright Eve Ensler to sum up her role over the past 26 years: “An activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is not usually motivated by the need for power or money or fame, but in fact, is driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness, so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.”
The story of Ameno’s crusade in the Kiski Valley is still gaining renown. Her role in the lawsuits, community campaigns, and challenges to the government has been chronicled in area newspapers and regional television. Recently, the tale was recounted by the Wall Street Journal and Al Jazeera America. The stories serve to inform and educate, but Ameno said her part in the ongoing coverage is getting old.
“The one thing about me—I’m boring,” she said. “It’s the same thing over and over again, because that’s what the truth is—it’s a broken record. And that’s the one thing that stands.”
The biggest phase of the disposal-area cleanup has been at a standstill for three years. The US Army Corps of Engineers halted excavation when workers discovered more and different kinds of atomic waste than expected.
There’s no timetable for finishing the work. And that’s okay, Ameno said—as long as it doesn’t stop. “All things happen in good time.”
Ameno believes the Bible is not a religion, but a way of life, and she relates Ecclesiastes 9:11 to her own decades-long battle: “It is not given to the swift or the strong, but the one that endures to the end.”
Ameno decorates her home with turtle novelties, signifying the fabled race between the turtle and the hare that demonstrates the power of perseverance.
“We’re going to win this,” she said. “I just hope I’m here to see it done.”
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