Originally published July 20, 2018 in the Chillicothe Gazette
PIKETON – For nearly three years, Steve Shepherd has been trying to drum up interest among developers in an 80-acre parcel of land located on a corner of the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant site.
On Friday morning, the executive director of the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative (SODI) officially received the biggest asset he could get to help in that quest — ownership of the land itself.
“I was able to give a presentation a couple years ago in Brussels (Belgium) and (have been) working with the European Union to discuss (development possibilities),” Shepherd said. “We’ve talked with them about cost-sharing and design and siting studies, but the main thing is also working with American companies through that process that have started showing interest in the site.
“We’re diligently working it, but we have some people who want further discussion. You have no project until you have land, so people will talk to you briefly, but that stops quickly once they find out you don’t own the property. So getting this signed today is a big deal that allows us to talk more freely, hopefully in the next year or so when we get additional property, that will give us a whole lot more opportunities because we’ll have a larger piece of property.”
Under a banner reading, “Reindustrialization Starts Today,” Shepherd joined Robert Edwards, the Department of Energy’s Portsmouth/Paducah Project Office manager, and Anne White, assistant secretary of environmental management for the Department of Energy, in a signing ceremony transferring ownership of the 80 acres from DOE to SODI. It is the first piece of property from cleanup operations at the DOE site to be cleared and transferred for redevelopment.
The property is located on the southeast portion of the property within Perimeter Road. It formerly contained a 1950s-era air strip, helicopter pad, rail spur, clean surplus and salvage storage yard and a personnel building. Last summer, an environmental assessment conducted by DOE looking at potential environmental consequences impacting the land transfer resulted in a finding of no significant impact.
Still, some Facebook chatter prior to Friday’s ceremony suggested DOE was transferring contaminated property over to SODI. Shepherd, in response, said he is confident in the condition of the property, particularly since its likely future use will be in the heavy industrial sector.
“The fact of the matter is, the Ohio EPA has to be the watchdog that makes sure that the property we get (is ready for redevelopment),” he said. “The process, it started in ’15 and it’s taken three years, that property has been gone over with a fine-tooth comb to make sure there’s no contamination. But that’s the start of it all. That property, and again, the next (expected) property were never part of the actual (uranium enrichment) operation, so you’re not going to see the contamination you’re probably going to see inside the fence.
“But we have to rely on Ohio EPA, the experts, that will make sure they clean it up to the proper level. I guess you also have to look at once they clean this up, the property we want is for heavy industrial, and any industrial sites you have are likely going to have some sort of contamination.”
During a brief ceremony conducted under a large tent on the property with thunder rumbling in the distance and a steady rain beginning to fall, the land transfer was celebrated as a milestone in the site cleanup.
“We did it,” Edwards said. “It’s been a long journey.”
White, who fairly recently was confirmed to her DOE assistant secretary post, talked about the overall progress of site cleanup work in Piketon, praised the efforts of the local workforce and expressed a commitment to partnerships such as the one with SODI that she said will lead to future development and jobs at the site.
The lineup of speakers also expressed appreciation to Ohio’s congressional delegation, particularly U.S. Sens. Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown, for its support in securing funding for ongoing cleanup operations they said made the land transfer possible.
“This 80-acre land transfer from the Department of Energy to SODI is a major milestone and hopefully the first of many,” Portman said in a statement. “…I look forward to the development that will take place on this location and to the positive economic impact it will have on the region.”
With the infrastructure that exists at the site, Shepherd has a good idea of what that development will involve.
“What we’re looking at is just industry … heavy industry,” he said. “It is a nuclear site so it’s used to heavy industry, and those heavy industry jobs pay well, give living wages, and allow you to have a lot more jobs.”