Why Maxey Flats Matters—or, How to Find New Environmental Icons

June 29, 2017

Photo by Ron Garrison, reproduced by permission of the Lexington Herald-Leader. Taken February 4, 1976.

In 1962, with powers vested by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Kentucky licensed a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility, the Maxey Flats Disposal Site.[1] Located in northeastern Kentucky’s rural Fleming County, the site’s shallow trenches welcomed nuclear garbage, ranging from medical scrubs to highly radioactive “special nuclear material” from 1963 to 1977.[2] For many Kentuckians the Maxey Flats Disposal Site (MFDS) is a familiar name. Beyond Kentucky’s borders, MFDS remains far less recognized for its role in shaping how commercial nuclear waste sites have been regulated and sited. Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Rocky Flats garner nods of recognition but not Maxey Flats. Yet, MFDS comprises an important chapter in America’s nuclear history. As one of the nation’s first, and ultimately few, commercial nuclear waste sites, Maxey Flats was part of a deeply flawed early system that ceded considerable regulatory authority to states; Kentucky was, in fact, the first such “agreement state,” as they were called. Problems soon arose at MFDS because site administrators failed to anticipate adequate policies for long-term site care, narrowly considered the possibilities for radionuclide migration, and broadly defined what constituted low-level waste. Furthermore, by commodifying nuclear waste, operators now had a financial incentive to ignore site issues.

In 1986, the threat posed by the site’s dangerous radioactive waste and toxic substances prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to designate Maxey Flats as a Superfund site, a designation reserved for the nation’s most polluted places. The history of Maxey Flats is instructive for many reasons, among them MFDS further demonstrated how certain types of modern industries—such as nuclear—brought forth new risks and troubling consequences. Disposing of nearly five million cubic feet of radioactive waste proved less simple than promised, particularly because disposal was privatized and regulatory arrangements gave some states, such as Kentucky, and the site’s owners, Nuclear Engineering Company (NECO), considerable responsibility for monitoring MFDS.

Despite its sprawling nature, one aspect of the nuclear industry—commercial low-level nuclear waste facilities—has exhibited little geographic variety. Typically, these sites have been  located in rural communities that were searching for economic development, deemed geologically suitable for waste burial, and often situated in states or regions with a strong commitment to nuclear industry. Defense installations, hospitals, nuclear power plants, university laboratories, and many other facilities produce radioactive waste in staggering quantities, and low-level radioactive waste (LLW) sites were developed to dispose of the materials. Nearly all LLW sites were licensed before widespread public concern about radioactive waste emerged. Of the eight original sites, only four operate today, a testament to the reluctance of states and counties to accept even low-level radioactive waste.[3]

For nearly ten years, the activities at Maxey Flats largely went unnoticed. A 1974 study by state officials called for better record keeping and for better enforcement of radiation standards. Two years later, an EPA report generated alarm about MFDS and validated suspicions citizens living nearby held. While doubts had always existed about the facility’s safety, no organized opposition to Maxey Flats emerged until the mid-1970s. Beginning in 1974, when regional newspapers again turned their attention to Maxey Flats, concerned residents finally gained vital information about the materials buried onsite, poor disposal practices, and possible radionuclide migration. Some residents suspected that changes in the local environment, such as discoloration of streams, were tied to NECO, but those complaints had been ignored or dismissed by company and state officials.[4]

Responding to the growing concerns, residents organized a campaign to halt its operation. Leading the way was John P. Hay, described by the Kentucky writer Frank Browning as a “farmer, electrician, and ginseng digger.” John P., as he was commonly called, spearheaded the grassroots movement among residents. Frustrated by NECO’s dismissal of their concerns, John P. wielded his organizing skills, gaining support and enlisting new allies. Collectively, they formed a grassroots citizens’ organization, the Maxey Flats Protective Association (MFPA) and fought for the site’s closure and highlighted the dangers of radioactive waste disposal. Though John P. lacked extensive formal education, he understood the effects of MFDS would linger beyond his lifetime.[5]

In February 1976, the MFPA organized a meeting at a local school “hoping to attract 20 or 30 people.” Instead, over one hundred people gathered together to call for action. Only a few months later, nearly two thousand people signed a petition to close the site. Although opposition to the waste repository came from concerns about radiation, local people also resented the idea that anyone perceived them as unaware or easily duped. John P. surmised that “you can’t just trust too much of what the company or the state people tell you. It’s like we’ve known the company’s been pumping over the hill into No Name Hollow. But they denied it for the longest time.” Writing to the Cincinnati Enquirer in February 1976, he presciently observed that “a news story is taking shape in the area,” one where organized opposition formed in a “search for information.” The threat of contamination into creeks and rivers warranted that “some questions be answered.” As John P. recognized, the events at Maxey Flats invalidated claims to expertise and secrecy by state officials and NECO. The nascent organization raised fundamental questions about lay people’s right to information and the need for transparency in hazardous industries.[6]

Responding to the unfolding crisis, NBC Nightly News traveled to Maxey Flats in 1977 and interviewed John P. In his matter-of-fact Kentucky drawl, John P. demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of what was at stake. Filmed walking through the woods near Maxey Flats, where John P. spent much of his time “wandering,” he told reporters that it seemed “we’ve lost already part of the environment here—that will in all probability never be usable again for any productive purposes.” John P. then lamented, “people will always be living within the shadow; the doubts will exist; it’s just not worth it.” Long before many others realized it, John P. recognized that Maxey Flats might require costly remediation, legal wrangling, and monitoring beyond his lifetime, but, more important, it produced a “shadow” that local residents would always face because their trust had been so thoroughly violated.[7]

John P.’s impact has remained obscure, but he deserves recognition. Like others who have organized and fought against environmental injustice in their communities—especially poor, rural, or marginalized places—John P.’s story shows the effectiveness of grassroots activism and ordinary citizens’ power, even when the odds feel thoroughly stacked against them. While Maxey Flats doesn’t fulfill traditional notions of historic places, it warrants an appropriate marker, one that serves as hearty warning about environmental misdeeds and as a hopeful reminder that anyone, even a little-known ginseng digger and farmer, can fight—sometimes successfully—for a more environmentally just world.

Editor’s Note: For more information on the history of Maxey Flats, check out Dr. Peyton’s article in the Spring 2017 issue of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, which is available online via Project MUSE, https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/35938. Print copies of the issue can be purchased for $12 by calling 502-564-1792, ext. 4421, or emailing [email protected].

[1] Local residents refer to the area as “Maxey Flat.” I employ the name Maxey Flats, per government documents. For “atomic graveyard,” see Jim Morrissey, “Kentucky’s Atomic Burial Ground,” Louisville Courier-Journal, December 13, 1964.

[2] Environmental Protection Agency, “Summary of Remedial Alternative Selection, Record of Decision, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Maxey Flats Disposal Site, 14–15,” October, 1991, 11–12 (hereinafter EPA, Maxey Flats ROD); “Division of Waste Management: Maxey Flats Disposal Site,” Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection website, http://waste.ky.gov/SFB/Pages/MaxeyFlatsProject.aspx (accessed November 8, 2016). See also “EPA Superfund Program: Maxey Flats Nuclear Disposal, Hillsboro, KY,” Environmental Protection Agency website, http://www.epa.gov/region4/superfund/sites/npl/kentucky/maxfltky.html#location (last accessed Sept. 9, 2016) (hereinafter EPA website, “Maxey Flats”).

[3] Current sites include those located in Richland, Washington; Barnwell, South Carolina; Clive, Utah; and Andrews, Texas. Former sites include Sheffield, Illinois; Maxey Flats, Kentucky; West Valley, New York; and Beatty, Nevada.

[4] Livingston Taylor, “State won’t release radiation report but officials say Maxey Flats is safe,” Louisville Courier-Journal, December 2, 1974; Howard Fineman, “Nuclear Site Safety Questioned,” Louisville Courier-Journal, April 17, 1975; Frank Browning, “The Nuclear Wasteland,” New Times, July 1976, pp. 43–47.

[5] Browning, “The Nuclear Wasteland,” 44

[6] Browning, “The Nuclear Wasteland,” 44; John P. Hay, “Letter to the Editor,” Cincinnati Enquirer, February 15, 1976.

[7] “NBC Reports: Danger! Radioactive Waste,” NBC Nightly News, aired January 26, 1977 (quotations). Regarding public health, recent county-wide cancer rates are no higher than average, but county statistics, much like poverty assessments, do not account for divisions within those areas, and isolating illness to one cause is difficult, particularly for non-site workers. The only evidence attainable for this project was anecdotal about increased cancer rates, but this nonetheless suggests a “shadow” looms over the area, whether real or imagined. On cancer rates, see http://cancer-rates.info/ky/.