Split over Neutron plant exposes wider issue in Montgomery town

Safety question pits newcomers against longtime residents

July 27, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

DICKERSON -- The brown brick building at the top of the rise on Mount Ephraim Road looks a bit like a bunker, built into the side of a hill as it is and surrounded by chain-link fence. That's an apt image for the business inside -- Neutron Products Inc.

Neutron, which has been processing radioactive cobalt-60 for 30 years in this bucolic corner of western Montgomery County, near the base of Sugar Loaf Mountain, has been cited repeatedly for safety and procedural violations. These include inadequately training employees and improperly handling and storing radioactive waste.

It has been sued by state regulators who want to close some of the company's operations unless it posts a sizable bond. A Montgomery County judge says the state has enough evidence to prevail when the case goes to trial in the fall.

But the battle over Neutron is broader: a classic case of newcomers against longtime residents.

The company's problems have brought to the surface long-held resentments that Montgomery County government allows operations nobody else wants in the county's officially designated agricultural preserve -- a large area along its northern and western borders where few voters live.

Less than three miles from the Neutron plant, the smokestacks of a Potomac Electric Power Co. coal-fired power plant tower above the trees. Montgomery County's incinerator and composting facility also are on the PEPCO property.

"My district is a dumping ground," says Nancy Dacek, who represents the area on the County Council. "When you talk about greater Dickerson, it doesn't have a jail, but that's about it."

Dickerson isn't much more than a wide spot in the road along Route 28 between Rockville and Frederick, with a general store and several Victorian-era houses with wrap-around porches. Greater Dickerson includes the surrounding farms, the PEPCO property and a park along the Potomac River and the C&O Canal.

In recent years, the town has attracted federal employees and others who work in Washington, drawn by the rural atmosphere and a rail station near the center of town that makes commuting relatively easy.

The newcomers have stirred up the opposition, says Jackson Ransohoff, Neutron's owner. "They moved in long after we were here. They knew we were there. They thought it would be fun to participate in this."

Bob Zarnetske, vice president of the Dickerson Community Association and one of Neutron's most vocal opponents, has lived in the town less than a year. He says he fears not only for his family's health and safety, but the economic consequences of a disaster at the plant.

"If that place goes up in smoke and rains down radiation all over my house and my children, who's going to pay my mortgage?" he wonders.

Carol Oberdorfer, president of the community association, has lived there 11 years, and at least two other members of the group are longtime Dickerson residents.

One of them, Pete Dilonardo, a 46-year resident of the community, says: "I've been unhappy with him [Ransohoff] from the beginning. His attitude has been that it always seemed that whatever was found to be in violation of the regulations was the fault of the regulations."

Some longtime residents have no problem with Neutron. Margaret Lamson, who has lived in a two-story brick house across Mount Ephraim Road from the main entrance to Neutron for 41 years, says she is not concerned with the health issues raised by Neutron's opponents.

"Some of the newcomers came in and raised some questions," she says, "but when I look at the illness in the area, I don't see that it's any different than any other area."

Neutron opened in 1968 in a former International Harvester repair shop about a half-mile from the town's general store -- processing cobalt-60 used in radiation treatments for cancer. By the 1980s, the company was using irradiation to sterilize hospital supplies and other products, including cosmetics, animal feed and spices.

It also drew the attention of the state Department of the Environment, which found repeated safety and procedural violations. In 1988, a Neutron vice president set off alarms at a New York nuclear plant he was visiting because his clothes were contaminated with radioactivity.

"We've had a long enforcement history with this company that goes back to the '60s," says Ann Marie Debiasi, deputy director of the department's air and radiation management division.

Ransohoff says state regulators are carrying out a vendetta against him because he has been sharply critical of nuclear regulatory agencies that he says have created "a paradise for greenies and tort lawyers."

His company does "a very good job of dealing with the things that are important," he says, but regulatory agencies -- especially the state Department of the Environment -- have imposed "trivial" conditions on his company's license, he says. "Our biggest safety concern is getting people to and from work," he says.

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