Ohio-based Fernald is currently closing down, but it may never have
seen its 50th anniversary this year had it not been for some long
overdue PR help.
The former uranium processing plant, is in the midst of a huge
environmental remediation project. In other words, the site is cleaning
up and shutting down, restoring the area to its natural state and
turning the property over to the community. The fall of the Berlin Wall
and the end of the Cold War dramatically reduced the need for Fernald's
For most of its life, Fernald has been a secret. The local community
thought it was a dog food factory because of a sign that read "Feed
Materials Production Center" and the media paid little attention to
The secret gets out
Everything changed in 1984 when almost 300 pounds of uranium oxide was
accidentally released into the atmosphere and then later three wells
nearby were contaminated with uranium.
Fernald had no choice but to let its creaky doors begin to open, and a
whole new PR era was born. The plant began hiring its first PR staff
that same year to try and undo the damage that secrecy had wrought.
Reporters were allowed on-site for the first time in 1985.
Jeffrey Wagner started in PR at Fernald in 1986, when the plant was
ground zero for nuclear fears. His role was to help the firm explain the
"One of the first assignments I had was to help prepare the president of
Westinghouse (which managed the site before Fluor took over) for an
interview on 48 Hours," he said.
"We had every major network news show out here. We were on the cover of
Time magazine, on 60 Minutes, 20/20, the BBC. Phil Donahue (even) did a
live show out here."
Wagner also had to deal with a group called Fernald Residents for
Environmental Safety and Health (Fresh). After the leak, residents filed
a multi-million class action lawsuit.
Lisa Crawford, president of Fresh, is something of an Erin Brockovich,
the famous anti-PG&E activist. "You had every major TV station and
newspaper in your driveway. When we settled the lawsuit I had 357 phone
calls. I think back and I don't know how we did it but we were fueled
with anger." They won a settlement of dollars 78 million.
Wagner accepts there was no real public involvement in Fernald at the
time and adds: "It became clear in the late 1980s that something had to
The road to recovery
The first step was setting up community meetings. "They were quite
cantankerous," Wagner remembers. "These things were spectacles and the
media was out in force."
In 1991, the plant announced it would cease its uranium processing
operations and begin a full-time clean-up. The following year, the
Department Of Energy (DOE) sent a public affairs team to the site.
Ken Morgan is director of public affairs for the DOE's Ohio field
He was the site's first DOE public affairs officer and had spent five
years previously working on the same issues in government. He says he's
learned from mistakes made at other sites. "I got real good at sound
bites and giving speeches to the press," Morgan says, "The conclusion
then was that our work was mostly about providing programming for the
entertainment industry, not about solving problems and moving us forward
in good government and business."
The DOE and Fernald's management company, Fluor, currently collaborate
on the development of PR programs, but have their own areas of control
too. "I would never presume to speak for Fluor and Jeff Wagner would
never presume to speak for DOE," says Gary Stegner, who replaced Morgan
With DOE's prompting in 1991-92, Fernald began to bring the community
into the mix. Several programs were developed, including the Fernald
Report, an update of the clean-up which is sent to residents, employees
and other stakeholders.
Fernald's PR team also created an envoy program, turning employees into
Fernald ambassadors through their existing relationships with their
churches, schools and business associations.
The most significant program instituted by the DOE was the Citizens
Advisory Board (CAB) in 1994. It was devised to bring together
representatives from activist groups, employees, academia and the labor
unions to make recommendations on clean-up issues.
Says Jim Bierer, the current CAB chairman, "We wondered if we were going
to be effective in helping with the decisions or were we just going
through the motions with the DOE doing whatever it wanted."
But CAB, which currently has 13 members, has had a legitimate role in
the decision-making process, and the reassurance that all sides are
represented has quelled much of the resentment aimed at Fernald for so
long. "We had to build trust," Bierer says. "We had to believe each
other was telling the truth."
One of Fernald's success stories was convincing the CAB that containing
some of the low level radioactive waste in on-site underground bunkers
was a good idea. "For the community around Fernald to accept that was
unique," says Chris Logan, editor-in-chief of Weapons Complex
"The reason they were willing to do that was because the information was
adequate and detailed enough so they trusted what the government was
One of CAB's biggest issues at the moment is deciding how the land will
be used once the site is cleaned up. Among the ideas being discussed is
the reinterment of Native American remains that have been unearthed.
Another proposal is launching an educational program around the
Preparing for the end
Media coverage of Fernald at the moment has slowed significantly, but
the issue of budgets and funding still grab headlines.
In March 2001, media coverage of a DOE inspector general's (IG) report
painted a critical picture of a recent sale of enriched uranium by
"The IG had issues with how that was managed," Wagner says. "From the
stories it seemed like it was money that went into our pockets and that
it wasn't a good program. That was just not correct. It allowed us to
get rid of product and move forward with the clean-up."
Today the whole site, including the PR team, is working hard to put
itself out of business. The aim is to close by 2010. The PR staff used
to number more than 50, but as people have left they have not been
replaced. There is now around 20 public affairs staff.
One hot government relations issue that Fresh's Crawford has even
addressed with government officials in Washington, DC is finding
sufficient funding to finish the job as quickly as possible.
That is because everyone involved with the history of Fernald just wants
to see the job finished. "They just want to see the place close up,"
Wagner says. Bierer agrees, "Let's get on with this," he says, with a
note of exasperation. "Let's get this done and get out of here."
Director, public affairs, Fluor Fernald: Jeffrey Wagner
Public affairs officer, Department of Energy: Gary Stegner
PR Budget: dollars 2 million a year