There will be no tomatoes in Harry Meem's garden this year. Or beans. Or anything at all. The reason, Meem said, is fear.
"For 18 years, ever since I retired, I've lived and breathed this garden," said Meem, 73, as he pointed at an untilled lettuce bed on his grassy four-acre lot one recent afternoon. But last year, Maryland investigators found traces of radioactivity in his soil, so Meem decided that to plant this spring might be to risk the health of anyone who might eat his vegetables.
"It's gotten so bad that they call me Radiation Man at the [golf] club," Meem said. "I'm scared. With radiation, the worst thing is that you can't see it, or smell it, or taste it. You just never know."
Harry Meem lives in the house where he was born in the heart of Dickerson, Md., right beside the B&O Railroad tracks that bisect the town and only 72 feet away from Neutron Products Inc., a plant that processes radioactive chemicals that are later used to treat cancer patients and sterilize hospital instruments. Neutron Products is the largest company of its kind on the East Coast and the second largest in the country.
Meem's problem reflects Dickerson's. Maybe, like Meem's garden, normal life in this slice of exurbia 40 miles from the White House is in danger from radiation. But maybe the danger has been overstated, and Dickerson can expect to remain the sleepy northern Montgomery County farming community of 200 people that it has been for the last century. No one knows for sure.
What nearly everyone in Dickerson knows, however, is that Neutron Products, by far the largest business ($3 million gross last year) and employer (70 workers) in town, has been cited or investigated 23 times in the last five years for violations of Maryland radiation safety standards.
Meanwhile, a site about two miles southwest of town was chosen late last year for the open-air composting of 100 tons of sludge a day. The aroma of that process sometimes spreads for five miles. In addition, there are widespread rumors among residents that a nuclear waste disposal site will be located in Dickerson. "I guess you can see why we feel singled out," said Ted Miller, president of the Dickerson Citizens Association.
For the moment, however, on the two-a-day B&O commuter trains, in Freddy Ghanayem's general store, among the congregation of Miriam Jackson's United Methodist Church, the chief topic of conversation in Dickerson for the last four months has been Neutron Products.
Since November, the company's license has been up for renewal before the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. State officials say they are conducting the most thorough investigation of a radioactive chemical processing company in Maryland history. Although it will be summer at the earliest before a decision is reached, many Neutron Products opponents in Dickerson think chances are good that the company will be forced to move, or go out of business.
Tension between Dickerson residents and Neutron Products reached a peak last November when a microscopic chip of radioactive cobalt -- the element processed most frequently at Neutron Products -- was found by a citizens' group on the B&O tracks just outside the rear wall of the company's six-acre plant.
The chip "was hot, hot as hell, no question," said Jackson A. Ransohoff, president of the 13-year-old company. In fact, according to measurements made by state officials, a person who stood next to the chip for eight hours would have been subjected to as much radiation as the recommended federal maximum for an entire year.
Neither state nor Neutron Products officials could explain how the chip got onto the railroad tracks. Ransohoff suggested that an opponent of his company might have placed it there surreptitiously in an effort to sabatage the company's license renewal effort. State investigators theorized that the chip had been carried out of the plant inadvertently -- by an animal, in a pants cuff, in someone's beard. "But we never proved anything, and I'm sure we never will," said Richard Brisson, a state public health radiation specialist.
The discovery of the chip induced Brisson and his assistants to sample the water at all 92 of Dickerson's households, and the soil of Neutron Products' immediate neighbors. The sampling cost the state at least $100,000, according to state officials.
"The water turned out to be fine," Brisson said, but levels of radiation were found in the soil samples, including 10 taken from Harry Meem's front yard. Brisson said the discovered levels were not high enough to pose any immediate shortterm hazard to Dickerson. "But I want to stress that this office can't always guarantee a finite degree of safety," Brisson said.
Indeed, Ransohoff acknowledged that the "chip incident" could be repeated at any time. There is no fence around Neutron Products, and company policy is for workers to monitor themselves with radiation detectors as they leave the plant. "No one in his right mind would fail" to wash a speck of radioactive material off himself, Ransohoff said -- but no inspector or official is posted at the exit door to force him to do so.
The discovery of the chip and the nearly constant pressence of state sample takers have led to unprecedented nervousness among some Dickersonians over the last four months.
Miriam Jackson, the only minister in town, said that since November she has counseled about 35 residents of all faiths, many of them elderly. "I'm terribly concerned about the anxiety level," she said. "Anywhere you go, people are talking about leaving, and asking 'What are we going to do?' and 'Where are we going to go?'"
Among the younger residents, many of whom fled the crime and church of the city in search of a bucolic life in the country, disillusionment and fear seem strongest, Jackson said.
"One couple came here from Adams-Morgan (the Northwest Washington neighborhood near downtown) after four women were raped in the block where they lived. Now they say they're afraid to start another baby here because of the radiation," Jackson said.
"But I don't think people are at the giving-up stage. They're still mad as hatters."
So is Jackson Ransohoff.
He attributes much of the anti-Neutron Products sentiment in the community to "hysterical fears not grounded in the facts," spread by Dickersonians who "are going to take anything they can hang their hats on and try to scare the hell out of people.
. . . Most people in Dickerson support us. The people we have a problem with are the people who want this to be a nice, quiet suburb."
Ransohoff classified the 23 cases in state investigators' files as "minor incidents, many of which we reported ourselves." He said "no one has ever come close to being killed or injured by anything we do, either our employes or our neighbors.
"We have not been mysterious. We have not been spooky. We have not refusal to talk to people. We have been good neighbors," said Ransohoff, 52, a chemical engineer who lives in Bethesda and who grew up lives in Bethesda and who grew up in a small Connecticut town not unlike Dickerson. "As a company, were on the side of overprecaution rather than underprecaution. The reason is: We think it's good business. The concept that we are in an adversary situation with the town is the product of a paranoid society."
Ransohoff said that Neutron Products will not move ("Too expensive -- we've got too much invested where we are."), and he said he was confident the company's license will be renewed ("It deserves to be."). Asked to speculate on the chances of renewal, Brisson declined, although he said modification of the license was possible. As for the plant's location, Brisson said "a decision to site it in Dickerson that looked okay in 1968 might not look so good in 1981."
Ransohoff acknowledged that Neutron Products has "a public relations problem, a big one," but he said he remains doubtful about the true level of community suspicion about Neutron Products.
"Why didn't anybody say anything when we opened the doors in 1968? Our name is not exactly misleading," Ransohoff said. "It makes me think that if we were making toys, it wouldn't make any difference to some people."
Harry Meem thinks the Neutron Products issue is simple. "Clean it up or close it up," he said. "Let this community stay the way it's been."
"I think Dickerson can and should be a good, self-sufficient, small community," Jackson Ransohoff replied. "I like the community.And I think we're good for it."