HAYWARD – After hearing from both sides of the issue, the Alameda County Board of Education decided late Tuesday night not to rescind its call for a moratorium against school field trips to Lawrence Hall of Science.
Instead, the board passed a substitute resolution noting the “differences of opinions” over the risk of tritium exposure at the Hall, and advising educators, students and parents to “independently assess” the risk and make “individual decisions” about visiting LHS.
Tuesday’s action was a follow-up to an April 11 board vote in support of a parent/teacher advisory about tritium emissions from the National Tritium Labeling Facility, located on
the grounds of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory just below the Lawrence Hall of Science.
That vote generated publicity and controversy not just because tritium is a hot-button issue for many people, but also because no one from the Lab or LHS was notified that item was going to be discussed. So, the board only heard one side of the story.
Neither side of the issue walked away entirely satisfied Tuesday night, but the members of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste – which had representatives on hand for the vote two weeks ago – seemed moderately satisfied by the vote.
“There’s disappointment, but we feel that it’s still a form of a warning,” said Gene Bernardi, co-chair of the committee.
Lawrence Hall of Science representatives said the approved resolution didn’t go far enough in the other direction: reassuring educators and parents that it was safe to visit the Hall.
“If you look at the resolution, we’re still a part of it, and I’m dismayed that the board did not rescind it as requested,” said Barbara Ando, the Hall’s associate director for public programs. During the Hall’s presentation, Ando had argued that LHS had been dragged into the middle of a long-standing dispute between community activists and the Lab.
The night’s theme could have been “Will the trustworthy scientists please stand up?” Each side paraded a list of experts to back up its arguments. The Lab-Hall-Environmental Protection Agency speakers reiterated that all three agencies have conducted tests showing that the tritium air emissions pose no risk to LHS visitors or Hall employees. Speakers brought forward by the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste said the pro-Lab scientists used flawed methodologies and presented evidence that lacked credibility. One went so far as to call the scientists liars.
In their presentation, LBNL representatives used a hypothetical person – a “maximum exposed individual,” who spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the LHS site – to support their argument. They said such an individual in 1998 would have received a total of 0.3 millirem of tritium radiation, and about 0.1 millirem in 1999. The maximum limit under EPA guidelines is 10 millirem in a year.
So, a person who makes a three-hour visit to the Lawrence Hall of Science would be exposed to just 0.000034 millirem, the Lab representatives said. That’s the equivalent of sleeping six or seven hours in a bedroom where a smoke detector sits just a few feet away.
But scientists brought in by the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste offered a series of criticisms against the data presented by the Lab, Hall and EPA. In particular, they challenged the assertion of how many millirem the average person is exposed to by visiting the Hall. The Committee contends that if the “correct parameters” were used in the computer model, it would show that the average dose over a year for that hypothetical person would be 50.5 millirem. The Committee also argued that the danger of the tritiated water vapor – what’s actually released at the end of the tritium labeling process – is 25,000 times more damaging than tritium gas.
The facility at the Lab uses tritium to “label” a molecule, which can then be used by researchers. The tritium serves as a “homing device” for those scientists, the Lab says in one of the informational items distributed at the board meeting.
After both sides presented their cases, County Schools Superintendent Sheila Jordan encouraged the board to adopt a resolution rescinding the April 11 decision, which had never actually been distributed but had been discussed already in schools throughout the region. But the majority of the board was unwilling to take that action, and a substitute motion was introduced and then adopted, after some modifications.
Jordan made it clear that she agreed with the assertion that the Hall is a safe place to visit, even pointing out that her son will attend a two-week educational camp this summer at LHS.
“The real risk is that teachers, students and families will unnecessarily miss out on the great educational experience the Lawrence Hall of Science provides,” she said.
Of the seven board members, five voted for the substitute resolution, one voted against it and one abstained.
“I was completely satisfied with the explanations and information provided by the Lab and the EPA,” said board member Ernest Avellar, the only person who voted against the substitute. “I realize that the substitute was done to keep that group (the Committee) happy, but I wanted to rescind the original resolution.”
But Carmen Carillo, who introduced the original resolution two weeks ago, said the board “acted correctly the first time.”
“In my view, the original resolution was fairly mild,” she said. “It called for a moratorium, but we don’t have any jurisdiction for enforcing that. But I think the Lab got so upset because they don’t want any unwanted publicity. I believe that the more discussion we have on issues like this, the better off we are as a society.”