Wood chips from a cut-down grove of Eucalyptus trees contaminated with radioactive Tritium is alarming a group of concerned residents near the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
They say the lab should and UC Berkeley should undergo a full environmental impact review before the three yearlong project is continued in the Berkeley hills.
“If we don’t know the levels of tritium then it is inappropriate for the lab to cut down the trees in such a cavalier way,” said L.A. Wood, who lives less than a mile away from the lab and the Lawrence Hall of Science.
Lab and UC Berkeley officials, however, emphasize that cutting the trees is perfectly safe.
“The trees in question are very very far away from the tritium. To have any damage you’d have to eat 3,000 pounds of chips. You’d have to eat an awful lot of chips,” said Paul Lavely, director of the UC Berkeley office of radiation safety.
Last week, workers began cutting down trees and feeding them into a chipper next to the Hall of Science. Lavely added that there was little dust since the trees were wet. Concerns over fire safety prompted the clearing, according to lab spokesperson Ron Kolb.
But Wood believes that the lab is fast-tracking the project to get rid of evidence that they were feeding contaminants into the air.
In a letter to Gene Bernardi, co-chair of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, from Richard Nolan, director of the Berkeley site office for the U.S. Department of Energy, Nolan wrote that he did not expect any tree removal until at least December 2001.
“I was quite shocked that they were being cut,” Bernardi said.
But Kolb moving the project faster was to the lab’s benefit because the fire season is currently in full swing. He also said the lab tested 171 trees in the area in 1998 and 1999 and said that the amount of tritium discovered was negligible.
The tritium got into the trees from a labeling facility established in 1982. In the facility, staff “label” drugs and other material by replacing hydrogen atoms with tritium atoms. Because tritium is radioactive, it helps researchers detect a drug’s presence in the body.
In 1998, the lab said annual dose from the facility to a person living next to the Lab was .27 millirem – far below what the average person encounters in daily living.
However, a 1996 study conducted by Dr. Leticia Menchaca, indicated that some trees as far away as 150 meters from the labeling facility had extremely high levels of tritium.
Kolb said that none of the trees being cut down are close to those levels. Instead, he reemphasized that the cut trees have very levels and pose no health hazard.
“We are confident that those levels should have no concern,” he said.
But Woods isn’t buying it.
“Last Thursday, there were kids playing 20-30 feet away from the downed trees. There is a tremendous amount of controversy as to how hot the trees are,” he said. “The whole process has been controversial but there has been no review. They simply do not want to open the door because the door is Pandora’s box.”