POGO and the AFSC letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson regarding groundwater testing
Administrator Steve Johnson
Ariel Rios Building
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20460
Via Facsimile: (202) 501-1450
Dear Administrator Johnson:
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a Quaker-relation social action organization and 1947 Nobel Peace Prize recipient; and the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is an independent nonprofit that investigates and exposes corruption and other misconduct in order to achieve a more accountable federal government. Our organizations have worked with the grassroots citizens group Concerned Citizens of Lake Township (CCLT) on the Industrial Excess Landfill (IEL) Superfund site in Uniontown, OH, for over ten years. We have been seeking the truth about what is buried at the landfill and a safe and permanent clean-up of the site. We have recently become concerned that the process used to test for man-made radiation at this site is being used as a model for testing at other similar Superfund sites. We are concerned because scientific experts from the EPA, Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the private sector have found significant inadequacies and inherent biases in the Method used to test at IEL.
For background, IEL is an unlined landfill in a former sand and gravel pit containing thousands of tons of toxins. According to the USGS, the site has a high water table, and the rate of flow through the site is up to six feet per day. For decades, the citizens of the area have been concerned about the possible presence of man-made radiation at IEL. Validated tests have indicated various levels of man-made radiation. While the October 3, 2001, "Plutonium Summary" issued by EPA's National Air and Radiation Environmental Laboratory (NAREL) admitted that dozens of samples from IEL had shown potential results of plutonium in both the 1992/1993 and the 2000/2001 rounds of testing – even after field filtering and failing to acidify samples after collection – the report ultimately concluded that if the plutonium is present it poses no health risk. However, the plutonium levels reported at IEL were higher than the health-based action limit at Rocky Flats.
Concerns about possible radiation at IEL were heightened in 2001 when former landfill owner Charles Kittinger testified in Federal Court that the government had buried large containers of plutonium-238 at IEL over 30 years ago. MRIs conducted by EPA in the locations identified by Mr. Kittinger indeed appeared to show large, egg-shaped anomalies. Yet, inexplicably, the site continues to languish with no clean-up in sight. Equally disturbing, EPA permitted 33 test wells to be sealed in 2004. This action closed off the only avenue through which it is possible to discover what toxins or radiation may be migrating from the site into the community.
While the EPA asserts that testing has been adequately conducted at IEL, and that there is no need for further testing, we don't believe this to be accurate. CCLT has consulted with several top private sector and government radiation experts over the years, and has established a broad consensus that the testing for plutonium and other man-made nuclear materials has been, frankly, botched.
EPA measured gross alpha and gross beta, using USEPA Method 900 for Finished Drinking Water, at the IEL Superfund site to screen for radiation in raw, untreated water. However, scientists – including your own – have questioned using this Method on raw, untreated water. Because the gross alpha/beta method was developed decades ago for naturally-occurring, water-soluble isotopes (i.e. the uranium-radium series), there is serious concern that due to inherent biases it may be missing crucial particles of insoluble man-made radioactive materials (that may, nevertheless, migrate through enhanced transport mechanisms such as colloids).
Those inherent biases include the Method's focus on the aqueous phase rather than the particle phase. This focus can underestimate or, worse, completely miss man-made nuclear materials not usually expected to be found in the aqueous phase: because these more-or-less insoluble materials can bind to colloidal materials and migrate through ground water, measuring gross alpha/beta is inadequate. In particular, field filtering – as was done in the 1992/1993 round of testing at IEL – and not preserving samples with acid upon collection – as in the 2000/2001 round – can compromise the integrity of the particle phase of water samples. It is in this phase that one would expect to find plutonium, for instance, if it were present in ground water.
Both field filtering and the failure to acidify immediately upon collection have the same outcome: they can both result in serious underestimation of plutonium. For years, the argument used by EPA's NAREL to justify the practice has been that, as long as particles are collected on the filters and added back to the solution, there is a full accounting. However, experts do not agree. When samples are not preserved with acid in the field, a condition is created which can allow almost all of the plutonium to precipitate out of the solution to the container walls. A significant portion of it may not, therefore, be analyzed. It is important to note that experts report that even if acidification is done at a later time, there is no guarantee that plutonium will be retrieved from the container walls. There is no guarantee that all (or even a majority) of the plutonium will be accounted for. Furthermore, there have been long-standing and well-documented concerns within EPA and the scientific community that field filtering can compromise results, particularly those related to colloidal material. (Please see USEPA's Kerr Lab documents.)
This issue is broader than questionable testing at IEL. EPA has stated that the ad-hoc Science Advisory Board (SAB) panel assembled to review, among other things, the use of Method 900 at IEL and other similar Superfund sites determined that Method 900 was an adequate screening method. However, it has been confirmed that the majority of that panel did not feel qualified to evaluate the Method for use at such sites. The use of Method 900 at the site is being used to justify the use of this Method at Superfund sites across the nation.
The SAB panel members' stated doubts regarding their qualifications to evaluate the use of radiation testing methods call into fundamental question their conclusions on both the use of Method 900 and the legitimacy of the subsequent radiation test results. AFSC and POGO request that EPA no longer apply the SAB panel's conclusions regarding radiation or Method 900 to IEL or other Superfund sites. We further ask that EPA discontinue the use of any reports or findings based on this panel's radiation conclusions.
Furthermore, given the scientific evidence against the use of Method 900 – modified or unmodified – to screen raw, untreated water, AFSC and POGO request that USEPA abandon the use of this Method for such purposes. Clean-up decisions that were based on modified or unmodified applications of Method 900, including the decision to do nothing at IEL, should be re-evaluated. There are other methods used by agencies such as DOE that are more appropriate for use at Superfund sites such as IEL. It is imperative that proper scientific testing methods replace unsound practices because those practices may be underestimating or missing problems that could affect the health of citizens in perpetuity.
Director of Economic Justice and Empowerment Program
American Friends Service Committee
Northeast Ohio Office
Project On Government Oversight