EPA Abandons Major Radiation Cleanup in Florida, Despite Cancer Concerns

An aerial view of an open-pit phosphate mine. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is walking away from an area in central Florida where it had raised fears that residents living on top of former mines were being exposed to dangerous radiation levels.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
Jan. 28, 2014, 9:28 a.m.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency is walk­ing away after a dec­ades-long battle with Flor­ida politi­cians and in­dustry of­fi­cials over clean­ing up phos­phate-min­ing waste in an area that could ex­pose more than 100,000 res­id­ents to can­cer-caus­ing ra­di­ation levels.

Un­der a de­cision quietly fi­nal­ized two weeks ago, the fed­er­al agency will leave it to state of­fi­cials to de­cide the fate of the sites in and around Lake­land, an ap­prox­im­ately 10-square-mile res­id­en­tial area mid­way between Or­lando and Tampa.

However, Flor­ida of­fi­cials have long ar­gued that the af­fected area need not be cleaned up in the ab­sence of ra­di­ation levels well above what EPA policy would nor­mally per­mit. The de­cision not to en­force the usu­al fed­er­al rules could have far-reach­ing im­plic­a­tions for how the United States deals with fu­ture ra­dio­act­ive con­tam­in­a­tion any­where across the coun­try — re­gard­less of wheth­er it is caused by con­ven­tion­al in­dus­tri­al activ­it­ies or il­li­cit ra­di­olo­gic­al weapons, crit­ics say.

In a joint state­ment to Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, the Flor­ida health and en­vir­on­ment de­part­ments say they have no plans to ex­am­ine the sites fur­ther, des­pite pri­or re­com­mend­a­tions by fed­er­al of­fi­cials that an aer­i­al ra­di­ation sur­vey of the area is needed. The state of­fi­cials say they already have enough his­tor­ic­al data per­tain­ing to the sites, and that ad­di­tion­al mon­it­or­ing is not ne­ces­sary.

The state­ment, provided to GSN by Flor­ida en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion spokes­wo­man Mara Bur­ger, sug­gests the EPA de­cision not to clean up the sites un­der its Su­per­fund pro­gram in­dic­ated that the fed­er­al agency did not con­sider the Lake­land area “prob­lem­at­ic” from a pub­lic health stand­point.

Un­der Su­per­fund law, the fed­er­al agency is au­thor­ized to re­medi­ate con­tam­in­ated sites that pose a threat to pub­lic health and the en­vir­on­ment.

In­tern­al doc­u­ments re­leased un­der the Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act in re­cent years show, however, that the fed­er­al agency’s lack of ac­tion was the res­ult of state and in­dustry op­pos­i­tion, and that EPA of­fi­cials did in fact be­lieve the sites could pose a ser­i­ous pub­lic health threat.

“It’s prob­ably the worst site EPA could clean up from a pub­lic health stand­point, when you con­sider the num­ber of po­ten­tial can­cers and the size of the af­fected pop­u­la­tion,” one source fa­mil­i­ar with the Flor­ida case told GSN. The source was not au­thor­ized to dis­cuss the is­sue and asked not to be named in this art­icle.

In re­sponse to ques­tions about the mat­ter, EPA spokes­wo­man Dawn Har­ris Young did not ad­dress wheth­er the sites posed a health risk. She said only that the state had sep­ar­ate “reg­u­lat­ory and edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams in place.”

“EPA be­lieves that ad­dress­ing all of the former phos­phate mines un­der one reg­u­lat­ory scheme would provide reg­u­lat­ory con­sist­ency for the landown­ers, busi­nesses and res­id­ents of Flor­ida,” the fed­er­al agency spokes­wo­man said.

The EPA de­cision not to en­force its Su­per­fund stand­ards at the Flor­ida sites is con­sist­ent with a con­tro­ver­sial new guide for deal­ing with the af­ter­math of dirty bomb at­tacks, nuc­le­ar power-plant melt­downs and oth­er ra­di­olo­gic­al in­cid­ents that the agency pub­lished last year, Daniel Hirsch, a nuc­le­ar policy lec­turer at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia-Santa Cruz, told GSN.

Doc­u­ments GSN ob­tained in 2013 promp­ted con­cern among crit­ics that EPA of­fi­cials are look­ing to use the new guide — which is backed by the nuc­le­ar power in­dustry — as a means for re­lax­ing its ra­di­ation stand­ards.

The agency’s ap­proach to the Flor­ida case lends fur­ther cre­dence to the con­cern that it is back­ing away from its long-held ra­di­olo­gic­al cleanup rules gen­er­ally, Hirsch said.

“The agency is lower­ing the EPA flag out­side the build­ing and rais­ing the white flag of sur­render,” he quipped.

Three Dec­ades of Con­cern

Al­though gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials have said little about the Flor­ida situ­ation pub­licly, fed­er­al in­volve­ment at the sites sur­round­ing Lake­land began in 1979. That’s when EPA sci­ent­ists first warned their su­per­i­ors that the area could pose a health threat.

The sci­ent­ists noted that past phos­phate min­ing had cre­ated el­ev­ated con­cen­tra­tions of ra­di­um-226 in the area’s soil. Ra­di­um pro­duces gamma rays that can pen­et­rate the body and in­crease the risk for a vari­ety of can­cers. In­hal­ing or in­gest­ing the urani­um byproduct can in­crease the risk of leuk­emia, lymph­oma and bone can­cer, spe­cific­ally.

In ad­di­tion, the de­cay of ra­di­um cre­ates radon, an odor­less, ra­dio­act­ive gas that can in­crease the risk of lung can­cer by seep­ing in­to homes and pol­lut­ing in­door air.

Giv­en these risks, the EPA sci­ent­ists ad­vised that no new homes should be built on the sites un­til fur­ther stud­ies were com­pleted, but the agency took no ac­tion and res­id­en­tial de­vel­op­ment con­tin­ued.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency paid little at­ten­tion to the Lake­land area sites un­til the new mil­len­ni­um, agency doc­u­ments show. By that time, agency of­fi­cials es­tim­ated that as many as 120,000 people liv­ing on 40,000 res­id­en­tial par­cels could be ex­posed to un­safe ra­di­ation levels.

In 2003, EPA of­fi­cials deemed the po­ten­tial prob­lem at one Lake­land sub­di­vi­sion — an up­scale de­vel­op­ment of about 500 homes called “Oak­bridge” — to be so bad that they con­sidered it a can­did­ate for emer­gency cleanup ac­tion. Low-in­come and minor­ity com­munit­ies might also be af­fected, in­tern­al doc­u­ments show — cre­at­ing so-called “en­vir­on­ment­al justice” con­cerns for the agency.

Re­gion­al polit­ics in­ter­vened, however, and the agency did little more in the way of study­ing the is­sue over the sub­sequent dec­ade. Res­id­ents were not warned of the EPA con­cerns and no re­medi­al ac­tions were taken.

Phos­phate min­ing in­dustry of­fi­cials, who rep­res­ent the second largest rev­en­ue-pro­du­cing en­ter­prise in the Sun­shine State, made it known in private meet­ings that they strongly op­posed the agency de­clar­ing the par­cels Su­per­fund sites. Such a move could make min­ing com­pan­ies li­able for as much as $11 bil­lion in cleanup costs, ac­cord­ing to es­tim­ates of the po­ten­tial scope of the con­tam­in­a­tion that the EPA in­spect­or gen­er­al in­cluded in a 2004 re­port.

State health and en­vir­on­ment of­fi­cials op­er­at­ing un­der Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor­ships sided with in­dustry, tak­ing the po­s­i­tion that no cleanup ac­tion was ne­ces­sary if res­id­ents were be­ing ex­posed to less than 500 mil­lirems of ra­di­ation per year. State of­fi­cials said this ap­proach was per­miss­ible un­der guidelines sug­ges­ted by the privately run Na­tion­al Coun­cil on Ra­di­ation Pro­tec­tion and Meas­ure­ments.

However, at the 500-mil­lir­em-per-year level, the can­cer risk for hu­mans is roughly 1 in 40, the U.S. Agency for Tox­ic Sub­stances and Dis­ease Re­gistry noted in a 2006 in­tern­al re­port it pre­pared re­gard­ing the Flor­ida dis­pute.

EPA cleanup policy dic­tates that, in a worst-case scen­ario, no more than one in 10,000 people should be put at risk for de­vel­op­ing can­cer from man­made con­tam­in­a­tion.

Fol­low­ing 2010 news re­ports about the stan­doff, EPA of­fi­cials began mak­ing pre­par­a­tions for an aer­i­al ra­di­ation sur­vey that was to en­able them to get a bet­ter handle on the scope and sever­ity of the prob­lem. The plans stalled, however, after a group of Re­pub­lic­an law­makers from Flor­ida — sid­ing with state and min­ing-in­dustry of­fi­cials — pres­sured the agency not to con­duct the sur­vey.

The Agree­ment

Last March, the Flor­ida De­part­ment of En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion pro­posed that the state — rather than the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment — dir­ect all fu­ture ac­tions per­tain­ing to the sites, ac­cord­ing to a March 13 let­ter sent by Jorge Cas­pary, waste man­age­ment dir­ect­or at Flor­ida’s De­part­ment of En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion, to Frank­lin Hill, EPA Re­gion 4 Su­per­fund dir­ect­or.

Hill agreed to the Flor­ida pro­pos­al in a let­ter back to Cas­pary earli­er this month.

The Jan. 14 let­ter sug­gests that after more than three dec­ades of in­tern­al con­cerns about res­id­ents’ health — and years of dis­agree­ment with the state and min­ing in­dustry — the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is walk­ing away from the sites per­man­ently.

“Be­cause the state would man­age the phos­phate min­ing sites that were his­tor­ic­ally lis­ted in [the EPA Su­per­fund data­base] un­der Flor­ida’s ex­ist­ing pro­grams, there would be no fur­ther fed­er­al in­terest in these sites un­der Su­per­fund and EPA would change their [data­base] status to “˜Archived,’” Hill wrote.

In the let­ter, Hill does not ex­pli­citly agree with Flor­ida’s pre­vi­ously stated po­s­i­tion that cleanup ac­tion is un­ne­ces­sary un­less res­id­ents are be­ing ex­posed to more than 500 mil­lirems of ra­di­ation per year. In fact, the cor­res­pond­ence between Hill and Cas­pary makes no men­tion of nu­mer­ic­al cleanup thresholds at all.

In their state­ment to GSN, the Flor­ida en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion and health de­part­ments said it is “not ne­ces­sar­ily the case” that they would take no re­medi­al ac­tion un­less res­id­ents are be­ing ex­posed to more than 500 mil­lirems of ra­di­ation per year.

For in­stance, res­id­ents might be ex­posed to gamma ray ra­di­ation through dir­ect con­tact with ra­di­um-con­tam­in­ated soil in their yards. Flor­ida of­fi­cials say that while they have no plans to in­vest­ig­ate the sites fur­ther, they hy­po­thet­ic­ally would con­sider tak­ing ac­tion if such ex­pos­ure caused res­id­ents to re­ceive a dose of more than 100 mil­lirems of ra­di­ation per year. At this level, about one in 300 people would be ex­pec­ted to de­vel­op can­cer — a risk 30 times great­er than the EPA worst-case-scen­ario of one in 10,000.

Even then, however, “the state would need ad­di­tion­al site spe­cif­ic in­form­a­tion in or­der to de­term­ine what ac­tions may be needed, in­clud­ing wheth­er work should be done to mit­ig­ate risk or oth­er­wise re­medi­ate the site,” state of­fi­cials said.

Flor­ida of­fi­cials say they do not be­lieve dir­ect ex­pos­ure to ra­di­ation from the soil is a sig­ni­fic­ant risk, and that the main factor in de­term­in­ing wheth­er there is a pub­lic health con­cern at a home should in­stead be the amount of radon gas pol­lut­ing in­door air. Mit­ig­at­ing in­door radon con­tam­in­a­tion is gen­er­ally cheap­er than clean­ing up ra­di­um-con­tam­in­ated soil. In­door radon pol­lu­tion can of­ten be ad­dressed though the in­stall­a­tion of vent­il­a­tion sys­tems be­neath homes, while cleanup of ra­di­um-con­tam­in­ated soil can re­quire massive ex­cav­a­tion pro­jects.

But ac­cord­ing to crit­ics, fo­cus­ing on radon — and not soil con­tam­in­a­tion — is a dra­mat­ic break from how the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment would nor­mally ad­dress such a site. For one thing, this ap­proach does not ac­count for the body-pen­et­rat­ing gamma rays res­id­ents might be ex­posed to through more dir­ect con­tact with the soil in their yards. Nor does it factor in the risk of in­hal­ing or in­gest­ing the con­tam­in­a­tion.

In ad­di­tion, the EPA ref­er­ence level that state of­fi­cials say they would use to de­term­ine wheth­er ac­tion is needed to ad­dress in­door radon pol­lu­tion is not based on health con­sid­er­a­tions. In­stead, it is based on how much radon cur­rent vent­il­a­tion tech­no­logy is cap­able of elim­in­at­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to the fed­er­al agency’s web­site, there is no “safe” level of radon ex­pos­ure. However, it can be dif­fi­cult to re­duce radon levels much lower than 4 pi­co­cur­ies per liter of air — the level that Flor­ida of­fi­cials are us­ing as their threshold for health con­cerns. Con­gress passed le­gis­la­tion in 1988 set­ting a goal of re­du­cing in­door radon levels to between 0.2 and 0.7 pi­co­cur­ies per liter, but the tech­no­logy needed to meet that goal does not yet ex­ist.

One in 43 people would be ex­pec­ted to die of can­cer from a life­time of radon ex­pos­ure at the 4 pi­co­curie per liter level, the EPA web­site says. The av­er­age level of radon in homes is about 1.25 pi­co­cur­ies per liter.

A Dif­fer­ent Ap­proach

While the EPA Su­per­fund pro­gram con­siders the amount of radon gas en­ter­ing homes, its de­cisions re­gard­ing wheth­er to re­medi­ate man­made ra­di­um con­tam­in­a­tion are usu­ally driv­en largely by how much of the ra­dio­act­ive met­al is present in the soil. For ra­di­um in soil, the threshold the fed­er­al agency nor­mally uses is 5 pi­co­cur­ies per gram, not in­clud­ing the amount of ra­di­um that would oc­cur in soil nat­ur­ally. It is at this level of ra­di­um and be­low that the agency would con­sider a site to be in com­pli­ance with its can­cer risk guidelines.

In its 2006 re­port, the U.S. Agency for Tox­ic Sub­stances and Dis­ease Re­gistry noted that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has re­lied upon the 5 pi­co­curie per gram of soil stand­ard at many sites, and lis­ted some in Pennsylvania, New Mex­ico, New York and Michigan as ex­amples. However, Flor­ida of­fi­cials con­sidered the threshold to be “overly con­ser­vat­ive,” the fed­er­al agency’s re­port noted.

At the time, Flor­ida of­fi­cials were push­ing for the 500 mil­lir­em per year ra­di­ation dose lim­it to be used as a threshold, though they now say they would fo­cus largely on radon in in­door air, with the pos­sible 100 mil­lir­em per year dose threshold for ex­pos­ure to gamma rays from ra­di­um in the soil.

Either way, not re­ly­ing on the 5 pi­co­curie per gram of soil threshold as a trig­ger for re­medi­al ac­tion is a ma­jor de­par­ture from nor­mal EPA policy, crit­ics say.

Un­til now, “I’ve nev­er heard of them abandon­ing their 5 pi­co­curie per gram lim­it — that’s used all over the place,” Hirsch told GSN. “What EPA ought to face is that it looks as though, un­der polit­ic­al pres­sure, they’ve un­der­mined their en­tire reg­u­lat­ory struc­ture for cleanup of ra­di­um-con­tam­in­ated soils.”

Polit­ic­al Con­cerns

Ac­cord­ing to EPA doc­u­ments re­leased in re­cent years un­der the Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act, a lack of fin­an­cial re­sources has con­trib­uted to the agency’s re­luct­ance to en­force its usu­al pub­lic health stand­ards at the Flor­ida sites.

Nor­mally, the agency can con­duct cleanups on its own terms and then sue the com­pan­ies it be­lieves are re­spons­ible for the con­tam­in­a­tion in or­der to re­coup its costs.

However, a tight budget en­vir­on­ment — along with the an­ti­cip­ated enorm­ous scope of the con­tam­in­a­tion in Flor­ida — gave the agency little lever­age in ne­go­ti­ations with the phos­phate min­ing in­dustry, ac­cord­ing to the EPA doc­u­ments.

In­dustry of­fi­cials made clear they were not in­ter­ested in as­sist­ing with a cleanup con­duc­ted along the lines of the agency’s usu­al Su­per­fund pro­to­cols. Without suf­fi­cient fed­er­al funds avail­able, EPA of­fi­cials could not cred­ibly threaten to force in­dustry’s hand.

Mean­while, Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress ar­gued that the phos­phate in­dustry was too im­port­ant to the state’s eco­nomy to risk harm by un­der­tak­ing costly cleanup ac­tions they thought un­ne­ces­sary.

Faced with a dif­fi­cult polit­ic­al situ­ation, it ap­pears that EPA of­fi­cials tried to word the new agree­ment with Flor­ida in a way that would de­fer over­sight of the con­tam­in­ated area to the state without ac­know­ledging the dif­fer­ence between the state and fed­er­al pub­lic health stand­ards, Hirsch said.

He sug­ges­ted that the omis­sion of nu­mer­ic­al stand­ards in the Hill and Cas­pary cor­res­pond­ence this month ap­pears to be a veiled ad­mis­sion by EPA of­fi­cials that the amount of ra­dio­act­ive con­tam­in­a­tion the state would al­low would not be con­sidered safe un­der fed­er­al policy.

 “What the agency doesn’t say speaks volumes — they know these num­bers are out­rageous,” Hirsch said. “The fact that they ca­pit­u­late without even dis­cuss­ing them is fur­ther evid­ence of their dirty hands.”

The source who asked not to be named said it was doubt­ful the ex­clu­sion of spe­cif­ic num­bers in the cor­res­pond­ence would ac­tu­ally stop parties re­spons­ible for ra­dio­act­ive con­tam­in­a­tion from try­ing to cite the Flor­ida case as a jus­ti­fic­a­tion for not clean­ing up to nor­mal EPA stand­ards, however.

“I would make that ar­gu­ment if I was on that side,” said the source. “You’d be stu­pid not to.”

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