ANALYSIS: Client Profile - Fernald takes on major clean-upinitiative. An Ohio-based uranium processing plant spent most of itslife in total secrecy, only to be thrust into the headlines in 1984 whena chemical accident occurred there...

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

on site.

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

environmental issues.

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

Agencies: none

PR Budget: dollars 2 million a year

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in