Hearing focuses on radiation cleanup standards

The Associated Press
Tuesday October 17, 2000

SACRAMENTO — State health officials are considering new standards to clean up sites contaminated with radioactive materials, despite critics’ claims people living near sites could be exposed to higher levels of cancer-causing radiation. 

The only public hearing on the proposed rule changes was held Monday in Sacramento. 

The Department of Health Services says they are adopting federal standards set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that protect public safety when radioactive sites are released for other uses. 

State health officials have jurisdiction over nuclear regulations within the state and set the standards for cleaning up sites that are contaminated with radioactive material. 

The state is adopting NRC guidelines because California is among 32 states that have agreed to revise their standards so they are consistent with the federal agency’s. 

Daniel Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a Santa Cruz-based public policy organization, said the new limits would let sites be declared clean even though they could be declared federal Superfund sites. 

Department spokeswoman Lea Brooks said contaminated land won’t be released for other uses until the theoretical risk has been lowered to one case of fatal cancer in a population of 50,000 people. 

Hirsch said he used federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission guidelines to arrive at much greater risk levels and noted the standards would allow exemptions to those levels. 

“These proposed regulations would permit risk levels of one-in-50 chance of fatal cancer at the most relaxed level,” he said. 

While the exemptions are included in the federal guidelines that health officials are considering, it is unlikely they would ever be granted, Brooks said. 

“And if they were granted, the site would be highly restricted to the public,” she said. “It would be so unusual, there would definitely be public participation and notification.” 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has expressed concerned that the cleanup standard is less than what is required for Superfund sites that have chemical contamination, said Larry Bowerman, chief of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act corrective action office with the EPA. 

“Radioactive cleanups should be done using the same approach as chemical cleanups,” Bowerman said in a phone interview Friday. “We prefer a one-in-a-million risk, but in some cases we’ll go to one-in-10,000 risk.” 

Also speaking at the public comment session were representatives from Grandmothers for Peace, Women’s Energy Matters and a radiation safety officer from Rocketdyne Power and Propulsion’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory. 

The state will respond in writing to the comments. They could take effect by October 2001. 

The Rocketdyne site is undergoing cleanup after decades of use as a reactor site, causing chemical and radioactive contamination. 

Radiation safety officer James Barnes said the Santa Susana site wouldn’t be affected by the rule change because the company has agreed to a limit that is stricter than the proposed standards. 

He did request that the state Department of Health Services, Department of Energy, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Environmental Protection Agency concur on the regulations, risk level assessments and other requirements that affect radiation cleanups to avoid confusion. 

“There needs to be a standardized process that everyone is using,” he said. “It’s very difficult for us to move forward in a process when we answer to several different agencies.”