Emergency response and nuclear waste cleanup experts, including EPA staff, state regulators and environmentalists, say they have serious concerns that a new EPA draft guide for when government officials should provide alternative water sources to people living in areas affected by a radiological emergency is not protective of human health.
The critics are also concerned that EPA may use the draft guide to carve out responses to nuclear incidents from a broader 1993 Superfund emergency response guidance which is intended to address both chemical and nuclear incidents and sets significantly stricter standards than the pending measure.
Many of the critics fear that the draft EPA guide, if published, could bolster arguments by industry and other federal agencies for weaker response actions at a broad range of contaminated sites because it includes an approach contained in a pending Department of Homeland Security (DHS) guidance for responding to dirty bomb attacks which allows for more site-specific cleanup assessments.
At issue is EPA's draft Protective Action Guidance for Radiological Incidents, which suggests emergency officials responding to a wide range of nuclear emergencies, including so-called "dirty bomb" attacks and accidents at nuclear power plants, weapons facilities and manufacturing plants, need not consider providing alternative drinking water sources such as bottled water until contamination reaches levels significantly higher -- in some cases thousands of times higher -- than current EPA guidance on when to supply alternative drinking water in the event of an emergency at a Superfund site.
The draft guidance also includes DHS' approach known as "optimization," which allows authorities to develop response standards based on incident-specific criteria. Some EPA staffers and state regulators had urged DHS to adopt strict Superfund standards in its proposed dirty bomb guidance. But DHS and other federal agencies, including DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), rebuffed the push, arguing that meeting Superfund standards would be too costly.
State regulators, some EPA staffers and environmentalists are now concerned that the new draft EPA document, which addresses a broader ranger of incidents than the DHS proposal, not only adopts the optimization method, but goes even further by recommending the weaker benchmarks for emergency drinking water.
EPA has defended the new guidance since Inside EPA published a copy of it late last year, arguing that addressing the aftermath of a catastrophic radiological incident is different from the type of emergencies addressed in the existing Superfund guide, known as the Final Guidance on Numeric Removal Action Levels for Contaminated Drinking Water Sites. The agency's Office of Solid Waste & Emergency Response published the existing Superfund guide 1993.
But statements an EPA spokeswoman has made in recent correspondence with Inside EPA have prompted renewed fears among environmentalists and some EPA staffers that the agency might suggest its emergency response personnel should use the dramatically less protective benchmarks in the new draft guide, rather than the 1993 guidance, as a reference when deciding whether to supply alternative water sources to people living in areas affected by a Superfund emergency.
The EPA spokeswoman says that the method for determining when agency officials should consider providing alternative drinking water in the 1993 document is "not currently being implemented" and that a forthcoming update to the 1993 guide will only address chemical -- as opposed to radioactive -- contaminates.
The spokeswoman argues that Removal Action Levels (RALs), which are the subject of the 1993 document, "only address chemical contaminants" and says "EPA developed Protective Action Guides (PAGs)," which are the subject of the new draft guide obtained by Inside EPA, "to provide guidance on actions to protect the public during a radiological emergency."
The 1993 document does not make any statements suggesting it is not applicable to radiological contaminates, despite the spokeswoman's assertions that RALs "only address chemical contaminates." Additionally, other Superfund guidance documents have generally maintained that the agency's approach to handling radioactive contaminates should be consistent with how it handles chemical contaminates.
For example, a 1997 guide titled Establishment of Cleanup Levels for [Superfund] Sites with Radioactive Contamination states that "[c]leanup levels for radioactive contamination at [Superfund] sites should be established as they would for any chemical that poses an unacceptable risk and the risks should be characterized in standard Agency risk language consistent with [Superfund] guidance.
Several EPA sources familiar with emergency response told Inside EPA that the agency's maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) under the Safe Drinking Water Act, on which the benchmarks suggested in the 1993 guidance are largely based, are still commonly referred to by agency officials when deciding whether to initiate an emergency response action under Superfund at sites with radioactive contaminates.
Asked to clarify whether the agency was in fact suggesting that PAGs be substituted for the more protective RALs when determining whether an emergency response action was necessary at a Superfund site with radiological contaminants, the EPA spokeswoman said the agency publishes PAGs "for use in a multi-agency radiation emergency response, per the National Response Framework's Nuclear-Radiological Incident Annex" and that the "PAGs are guidance designed primarily for use by state and local responders."
When asked what guidance EPA personnel should refer to when deciding whether to initiate an emergency response action under Superfund, the EPA spokeswoman declined to comment further. "We've said everything we plan to say," the EPA spokeswoman said.
For environmentalists, the EPA spokeswoman's statement added to previous concerns that the draft guide, along with the similar DHS document the administration proposed in 2006, could lead to a weakening of Superfund responses at sites with radiological contaminates. "Something is amiss," an environmentalist following the issue says. "EPA's feet are shifting like crazy."
Despite the EPA spokeswoman's claims that the methods in the 1993 RAL guidance "are not currently being implemented," EPA's Web site continues to recommend that officials refer to the document when deciding whether to take an emergency Superfund action.
Some state regulators and EPA staffers also are concerned that, if finalized, the new EPA guide will provide officials in industry and other federal agencies such as the Department of Energy (DOE) with a powerful tool to argue for weaker responses at a wide variety of sites.
Many EPA sources familiar with emergency response, however, downplay the prospect of their EPA colleagues adopting the benchmarks in the draft PAG document for anything short of major nuclear catastrophe, and even in that case, many agency officials would likely be reluctant to use those weaker benchmarks as a guide, the sources say.
One EPA source argues that the agency's emergency response officials already ignore the existing PAG document. "Those levels in the PAG will never be accepted, at least not once an actual response begins," a second EPA source says. "Our partners will insist on the MCLs . . . we already ignore the other PAGs."
But while state regulators acknowledge that they do usually maintain final say over such decisions, they nonetheless say they have serious concerns with the suggested benchmarks in the new EPA draft guide, and note that they are dramatically less protective then current standards that are widely accepted as being protective of human health.
"It's certainly hard not to be skeptical when the numbers are that drastically different," the first state source says, adding that the benchmarks in the new guide "seem so drastically different" that they will likely be "hard to justify." EPA officials who developed the draft guidance "probably misjudged the public's willingness to remain or return to an area" affected by a catastrophic nuclear incident, the source says.
"Once these kind of numbers are published in a guidance they tend to be misused," the state source says, "even though the footnotes may say" they should not be applied to a broad range of sites. In addition, EPA "seems to be abandoning well established, risk-based methodology in the guidance, which leads us at least at first to question" the agency's motives, the source says.
A former EPA emergency response official says the benchmarks the agency suggests in the draft guidance appear to be an attempt by the Bush administration and its constituents "to maximize the politics of the day." The "only reason" EPA would raise the benchmarks as high as it does in the draft is to cut costs, the former EPA official says. "It's definitely not a health feature," the former official says.
In the past, DOE officials have sought response actions weaker than EPA's Superfund standards when fires have occurred at their nuclear facilities, the former official says, and adds that codifying weaker benchmarks in the new EPA guide could give federal agencies and industry leverage to classify such incidents as emergencies and therefore subject to the weaker thresholds.
The state source notes that while states often have the final say at cleanup sites, federal law "doesn't give us very broad authority over radionuclides."
A second state source says it is "troubling that the federal government would suggest those levels are appropriate -- I can't envision a scenario where drinking that water is better than not drinking it." -- Douglas P. Guarino