Why Maxey Flats Matters

The Maxey Flat Disposal Site, with a temporary cap, in 2002. Photo by the U.S. Department of Energy.
By Caroline Peyton, Cameron University

For many Kentuckians the Maxey Flats Disposal Site (MFDS) is a familiar name. Located in Fleming County, the privately owned radioactive waste disposal facility operated from 1963 to 1977 and left behind an environmental calamity requiring painstaking, lengthy remediation efforts. Beyond Kentucky’s borders, Maxey Flats remains far less recognized for its role in shaping how commercial waste sites have been regulated and sited. Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Rocky Flats garner nods of recognition but not Maxey Flats.

In 1986, however, the threat posed by the site’s dangerous radioactive waste and toxic substances prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to designate Maxey Flats as a Superfund site, a designation reserved for the nation’s most polluted places. The history of Maxey Flats is instructive for many reasons, among them MFDS further demonstrated how certain types of modern industries—such as nuclear—brought forth new risks and troubling consequences. Disposing of nearly five million cubic feet of radioactive waste proved less simple than promised, particularly because disposal was privatized and regulatory arrangements gave some states, such as Kentucky, and the site’s owners, Nuclear Engineering Company (NECO), considerable responsibility for monitoring MFDS.

Studying Kentucky’s environmental history, and Maxey Flats more specifically, offers something else too. An EPA report published in 1976 generated alarm about MFDS and validated suspicions citizens living nearby held. Responding to the growing concerns, residents organized a campaign to halt its operation.

Leading the way was John P. Hay, described by the Kentuckian Frank Browning as a “farmer, electrician, and ginseng digger.” John P., as he commonly was called, spearheaded the grassroots movement among residents.

Frustrated by NECO’s dismissal of their concerns, John P. wielded his organizing skills, gaining support and enlisting new allies, such as the soil conservationist Jonathan Hawes. Collectively, they fought for the site’s closure and highlighted the dangers of radioactive waste disposal. Although John P. lacked extensive formal education, he understood the effects of MFDS would linger beyond his lifetime; the woods he loved and wandered through were tainted. Radiation levels might subside, but a “shadow,” as he called it, remained.

John P.’s impact has remained obscure, but he deserves recognition as an important figure in Kentucky’s history. Like others who have organized and fought against environmental injustice in their communities—especially poor, rural, or marginalized places—John P.’s story shows the effectiveness of grassroots activism and ordinary citizens’ power, even when the odds feel thoroughly stacked against them.

The area, known by residents as Maxey Flat for its flat-topped ridge, now contains an expanse of land draped in what might appear as an impossibly large tarp. The unceremonious sight disguises the complicated process of containment and remediation called “capping” by officials. While Maxey Flats doesn’t fulfill traditional notions of historic places, it warrants an appropriate marker, one that serves as hearty warning about environmental misdeeds and as a hopeful reminder that anyone, even a little-known ginseng digger and farmer, can fight—sometimes successfully—for a more environmentally just world.

(Editor’s Note: For more information on the history of Maxey Flats, check out Dr. Peyton’s article in the Spring 2017 issue of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, which is available online via Project MUSE. Purchase hard copies for $12 by calling 502-564-1792, ext. 4421, or emailing KHSPublications@ky.gov.)

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