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Lab’s tree removal may be monitored

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Tuesday November 27, 2001

The City Council will consider a recommendation at its meeting tonight to monitor Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s cutting, chipping and shipping of eucalyptus trees that a local group says are contaminated with the radioactive material, tritium. 

“We don’t want to be alarmists but we do want to be cautious,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who sponsored the recommendation at the request of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, a group of laboratory neighbors. 

Worthington said that if the recommendation is adopted by the council, he is uncertain what types of measures would be put into place to monitor the lab’s tree-cutting practices.  

Ron Kolb, LBNL spokesperson, said there is a substantial amount of reliable data that shows the trees contain insignificant amounts of tritium and that cutting them down poses no health risks to anyone. 

The recommendation also calls for the laboratory to stop shipping the tree cuttings to Japanese and Korean paper mills. 

Kolb said the lab is not involved in shipping tree cuttings anywhere. “We don’t ship the trees to Korea or Japan,” he said. “We contract that work out to landscaping companies and we have no idea what they do with the cuttings.” 

Kolb quickly added that no trees with measurable contamination have been taken off the site since 1997. He said that about 20 trees that were cut down last July as part of a fire management program were cut up in a wood chipper and left on site.  

The source of the alleged tree contamination is the National Tritium Labeling Facility, a four-room facility at LBNL whose work for the last 18 years has been to attach the radioactive isotope tritium to pharmaceuticals and other medical compounds.  

As part of the labeling process, low levels of tritium are released into the air through 119 stacks that are deployed at various locations on the LBNL property. Opponents of the facility claim the released tritium has been absorbed by nearby trees. 

Last July LBNL officials announced the facility would close in December due to a lack of contracts for tritium-related medical studies. 

The U.S. Environmental Protections Agency has set the maximum allowable tritium in drinking water to be 20,000 picocuries per liter.  

For a number of years, there has been a disagreement over the levels of tritium in vegetation near the facility. Opponents to the facility are fond of using data from a 1996 report by a former LBNL employee, L.B. Menchaca, who reported a grove of trees near the Lawrence Hall of Science, which hosts over a 100,000 children every year, as being contaminated with high levels of tritium. 

According to Menchaca’s report, the tritiated water levels in vegetation, mostly the eucalyptus trees, near the facility was as high as 128,000 picocuries per liter, more than six times higher than EPA drinking water standards allow. 

Kolb disputed those numbers and referred to a study done by Bernd Franke, with the Energy and Environmental Research Institute in Heidelberg, Germany. Franke’s Aug. 23 report, commissioned by the city, reported that the trees near the laboratory contained levels of contamination much lower than the EPA standards. 

“The preponderance of evidence shows that the amount of tritium in those trees is insignificant and the city’s consultant agreed,” Kolb said.  

LBNL cleared some 20 eucalyptus trees last July amid protests by the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, a group of residents who live near the laboratory.  

The Lab has said that the clearing is part of a fire management program that requires cutting and pruning of trees near the laboratory. 

But Community Environmental Advisory Commissioner LA Wood, said the removed trees were the same ones that Menchaca used for her study. 

“Those were the same trees that she sampled in 1996,” Wood said. “That’s what makes the whole thing smell.” 

Wood added that if those trees were contaminated, cutting them up in a wood chipper, upwind from the Lawrence Hall of Science, was “outrageous.” 

Kolb denied that anyone was put at risk by chopping up the trees. “We’re comfortable that we have plenty of data on those trees,” Kolb said. “We’re comfortable that no one was put risk.” 

Kolb added that no trees are scheduled to cut or trimmed under the fire management program and didn’t expect any more until next summer.