Nuclear Mystery: An Apollo woman’s fight to uncover the truth

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Two years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a profile and feature writing course with Professor Joe Starkey. For my final profile in the course, I chose to feature Patty Ameno, a woman from my hometown of Apollo, Pennsylvania who has fought for a majority of her life to uncover the truth of a “nuclear mystery.”

This was an important piece for me, and one I put countless hours of effort into to ensure it was done correctly. After several careful editing sessions with Professor Starkey, I felt great about the piece. While it was never published, I feel it is my best work in my four years at Waynesburg University.

Two years removed, this story is still vital to understanding one of the largest losses of Uranium in United States history. 

Below is the piece, written for May 10, 2019.




One normal night in 1975, Patty Ameno jumped out of a helicopter on a naval rescue mission. She fell 40 feet, and instead of landing in the Mediterranean sea, landed feet first onto a ship deck. If you think that was the worst thing that ever happened to her, Ameno has overcome so much more.

A brain tumor. Uterine cancer. Another brain tumor. These can be fatal diagnoses, but for Ameno, not even these were the fight of her life.

Ameno, 68, grew up across the street from the NUMEC nuclear plant in Apollo, Pennsylvania. The real fight of her life has lasted three decades. A search for answers and restitution for her hometown dealing with the lasting effects of the plant’s presence and negligence.

Courtesy of Patty Ameno

Ameno has made a link between the existence of nuclear material, fought for restoration and won over $80 million in settlements.

In an internal letter from the Nuclear Energy Liability Insurance Association to NUMEC, dated November 23, 1966, Ameno claims NUMEC’s negligence is exposed.

“Fortunately, this material effectively washed downstream with nobody being the wiser,” said R.T. Waite, the main writer of the document, according to Ameno.

The material in question is 30 kilograms of uranium. Valued at the time at $16 per gram. That equates to almost $500,000 in uranium, floating downstream on the Kiskiminetas river to the Allegheny, a main water supply to millions of people.

Even more telling is the Association’s warning to keep incidents like these out of the news.

“I would say that the less publicity given to these incidents at the time the better,” said Waite according to Ameno. “They would make quite startling tabloid headlines.”

Due to multiple instances of lost uranium at NUMEC, Ameno gained the help of top lawyers, energy experts and environmental scientists to investigate the lasting effects on Apollo.

“In 2012, there was a study of groundwater sources across the United States,” said Ameno. “According to the study, at least 126,000 groundwater sites need cleaned up immediately. 10% of those are so complex they would take at least 5,400 years to clean.”

One of the worst is the Kiskiminetas river.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to uranium “can cause severe health effects, such as cancer of the bone or liver.” 

This especially pertains to Uranium-235 and Uranium-238, which Ameno discovered is the type of uranium NUMEC left behind.

Courtesy of Andrew Hreha

There is no doubt in Ameno’s mind that the waste present in Apollo affects those still living there. Ameno says there are still “significant dangers” resting in the water and soil in and around Apollo.

Now, despite her health, Ameno continues to fight for the clean up of NUMEC’s Parks Township dump just three miles from Apollo, referred to as the Shallow Land Disposal Area. The clean up of the dump, estimated at 44 acres, has been halted many times. This is because, in the minds of experts and Ameno, the area contaminated is up to four times larger than originally estimated.

To oversee the cleanup, Ameno moved not 200 feet across from the dump area, guarded at all hours by armed members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

This time, the cleanup will be overseen by the office of U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA). Casey hopes to see the dump cleared efficiently for locals like Ameno who have had to deal with the consequences of prior government failures.

“I won’t be satisfied until the cleanup is complete, because that’s what residents deserve,” said Casey. “Currently the cleanup process has yet to begin, which is why I’m continuing to push for resources and accountability.”

Ameno started the push for government resources with the help of former congressman John P. Murtha. Murtha got the initial $5 million to help aid in the cleanup in 2001 and enlisted the Army Corps of Engineers for help.

That $5 million has exponentially increased over the years, thanks to Ameno’s continued push.

“My office has been receiving bi-weekly updates from the Corps on how the SLDA project has been progressing,” Casey said. “We have also been working to get the Corps the funding it needs to keep the project on track. In fiscal year 2019, we worked to get the program $150 million. We are working to do the same again for fiscal year 2020.”

This story may sound similar to Erin Brockovich’s, whose fight against a local energy corporation was dramatized in a 2000 film starring Julia Roberts. However, Ameno has spoken to the real Erin Brockovich and insists this is “nothing like it.”

“I’ve been pronounced dead three times,” said Ameno.

Why does she continue the fight? Ameno says she was inspired by that near-fateful night in 1975. Ameno claims she had a full conversation no one else remembers that inspired her. 

In the 1990s, a Department of Environmental Protections agent Ameno was questioning approached her and said, “My priest told me not to mess with you.” 

That was the same priest who read Ameno her last rites in the helicopter over the Mediterranean Sea. Encounters like these have kept Ameno going. Still, there is a single value Ameno is pursuing.

“Truth itself,” said Ameno. “Truth is goodness. Truth is love, and love is truth.”

When reflecting on her near death experiences and everything she has done for her community and those affected by the “Apollo Affair” as it is called, Ameno is stunned.

“I don’t know how I did what I did. I’m just a laborer.”