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Kentucky’s “Atomic Graveyard”: Maxey Flats and Environmental Inequity in Rural America

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Abstract:

In 1962, the Atomic Energy Commission licensed a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility, the Maxey Flats Disposal Site, located in rural northeastern Kentucky. From 1963 to 1977, the site’s shallow trenches welcomed nuclear garbage—ranging from medical scrubs to highly radioactive material. By the mid-seventies, a state investigation detected the presence of plutonium in off-site water sources. A subsequent study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency validated these claims and challenged a long-standing belief that plutonium, a heavy radioactive isotope, moved slowly. Defying predictions, rogue radionuclides had escaped their trenches and traveled deep through the sub-surface, moving faster and further than anticipated. Even after its closure in 1977, radioactive isotopes and toxic chemicals commingled in poorly constructed burial grounds, fittingly described by one writer as Kentucky’s “nuclear wasteland.”

Studying Maxey Flats reorients a western-dominated narrative of America’s nuclear history and illustrates how rural spaces comprise another category of environmental difference after 1945. Geographically isolated and sparsely populated, Maxey Flats exemplifies a rural landscape defined by what scholar Rob Nixon calls “slow violence.” Uncertainty about potential danger mattered less in rural Fleming county, as class dynamics combined with a “sense of geographical isolation,” contributing to regulatory failures and company oversight. Rather than a dramatic spectacle of environmental contamination, Kentucky’s nuclear “nightmare” evolved slowly and will continue to do so for hundreds of years—or more.

The history of Maxey Flats raises questions about how environmental justice narratives are constructed, the pitfalls and usefulness of “environmental justice” as a genre of environmental history, and why place matters. Considering the global turn, Kentucky’s “atomic graveyard” can help launch discussions about how historians can acknowledge connections that transcend specific locales or national borders without sacrificing the importance of place in environmental history.
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Name: ASEH Annual Conference
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http://aseh.net


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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1171070_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Peyton, Caroline. "Kentucky’s “Atomic Graveyard”: Maxey Flats and Environmental Inequity in Rural America" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ASEH Annual Conference, Drake Hotel, Chicago, IL, <Not Available>. 2018-01-10 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1171070_index.html>

APA Citation:

Peyton, C. "Kentucky’s “Atomic Graveyard”: Maxey Flats and Environmental Inequity in Rural America" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ASEH Annual Conference, Drake Hotel, Chicago, IL <Not Available>. 2018-01-10 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1171070_index.html

Publication Type: Panel Paper
Abstract: In 1962, the Atomic Energy Commission licensed a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility, the Maxey Flats Disposal Site, located in rural northeastern Kentucky. From 1963 to 1977, the site’s shallow trenches welcomed nuclear garbage—ranging from medical scrubs to highly radioactive material. By the mid-seventies, a state investigation detected the presence of plutonium in off-site water sources. A subsequent study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency validated these claims and challenged a long-standing belief that plutonium, a heavy radioactive isotope, moved slowly. Defying predictions, rogue radionuclides had escaped their trenches and traveled deep through the sub-surface, moving faster and further than anticipated. Even after its closure in 1977, radioactive isotopes and toxic chemicals commingled in poorly constructed burial grounds, fittingly described by one writer as Kentucky’s “nuclear wasteland.”

Studying Maxey Flats reorients a western-dominated narrative of America’s nuclear history and illustrates how rural spaces comprise another category of environmental difference after 1945. Geographically isolated and sparsely populated, Maxey Flats exemplifies a rural landscape defined by what scholar Rob Nixon calls “slow violence.” Uncertainty about potential danger mattered less in rural Fleming county, as class dynamics combined with a “sense of geographical isolation,” contributing to regulatory failures and company oversight. Rather than a dramatic spectacle of environmental contamination, Kentucky’s nuclear “nightmare” evolved slowly and will continue to do so for hundreds of years—or more.

The history of Maxey Flats raises questions about how environmental justice narratives are constructed, the pitfalls and usefulness of “environmental justice” as a genre of environmental history, and why place matters. Considering the global turn, Kentucky’s “atomic graveyard” can help launch discussions about how historians can acknowledge connections that transcend specific locales or national borders without sacrificing the importance of place in environmental history.


 
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