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Questions radiate over UC campus tritium lab

By Matthew Artz, Special to the Daily Planet
Monday May 20, 2002

Environmentalists expected to ask city to support lawsuit  

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s use of its tritium facility – which burns off potentially hazardous waste – has once again put federal lab officials at odds with a local environmental group that contends the burning process poses serious health risks. 

This Tuesday, for the second time this year, the grassroots Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste will petition City Council for $15,000. They want the city to fund a lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop the lab’s studies of certain waste treatment until an environmental impact report can be prepared. 

At issue is how the lab should dispose of waste, accumulated at their soon-to-be closed National Tritium Labeling Facility, and whether lab officials intentionally mislead the city regarding the extent and duration of the waste treatment studies taking place there. 

The labeling facility operated for 19 years providing tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, for researchers for use in a process known as labeling. Because tritium glows, it was used to attach to pharmaceuticals and pesticides so they could be traced as they traveled though organisms.  

However the labeling process required the release of tritium and other hazardous chemicals through an emissions stack located near a residential district and approximately 500 feet from UC’s Lawrence Hall of Science. 

There is disagreement about whether the emissions threaten the community. 

Lab officials note that emissions have always been well within federal standards. But environmental activists cite a 1998 Environmental Protection Agency study that found tritium levels at the lab above the agency’s cancer risk screening concentration level, qualifying it as a Superfund cite. 

Concerned about potentially dangerous levels of exposure to museum visitors and local residents, especially in the case of an earthquake or wildfire, the city twice petitioned for the facility’s closure. 

In September 2001, lab officials, having lost funding and facing continued community opposition, announced the closure of the facility, scheduled for that December.  

Environmental activists were elated, but the lab faced a dilemma over what to do with the remaining tritiated hazardous waste.  

The tritium had been mixed with numerous non-radioactive hazardous compounds, resulting in a product called “mixed” waste, which the lab is not permitted to send to storage facilities. 

Federal law requires Department of Energy laboratories to treat their mixed waste, which involves separating the hazardous compounds from the tritium so that it can be handled at a low-level landfill that handles exclusively radioactive wastes. 

The usual course of action would have been for the lab to transport the tritiated mixed waste to an incinerator plant.  

However, according to Robin Wendt, deputy environmental health and safety manager at the lab, the incinerator option would have cost roughly $6 million and requried congressional appropriation. Wendt also noted that incineration is a relatively dirty method of separating hazardous compounds from tritium, releasing a higher percentage of tritium from the incinerator stack. 

Instead, the lab opted to treat its mixed waste at the tritium facility using catalytic chemical oxidation. This process, which also involves burning mixed waste, is more environmentally friendly than incineration, but still results in hazardous emissions through the ventilation stack. 

The lab’s decision infuriated members from the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste. 

According to Pamela Shivola, co-chair of the CMTW, not only does catalytic oxidation release cancer-causing dioxins, but in 1998 a similar mixed waste treatability program, at the facility, resulted in an accident that released at least 35 curries of tritium – roughly half of the facility’s average annual emissions. 

Because of that accident, the California Department of Toxic Substances, in 2000, ordered the lab to stop performing mixed waste treatments at the site unless it applied for a permit, according to Gene Bernardi of the CMTW. 

The current mixed waste oxidation is not in violation of this order because it is classified as a study, which can be started without obtaining a permit. 

Wendt insists that a kiln process was to blame for the 1998 accident, which is not part of catalytic oxidation and has not been used since the accident. 

“Every indication we have is that this is entirely safe. These are extraorinary low levels that can be safe even as proximal as we are to the neighborhoods," said Wendt. 

The lab started catalytic oxidation in January of 2002. Because the facility is a federal lab and beyond the city's jurisdiction, the CMTW decided to pursue legal action. 

The lawsuit was to be filed against the California DTSC for failure to require the lab to do an environmental impact report before they allowed the lab to restart waste treatability activity. 

On February 5, 2002 the City Council voted 4-3 to reject funding the lawsuit. 

Nancy Shepard, an attorney fo the lab, spoke before the council that evening, and her testimony remains a source of contention between the two sides. 

According to Councilmember Donna Spring the council voted against funding the lawsuit because Shepard promised that the oxidation would be completed by April, and that there would be no further mixed waste treatments conducted there. 

“The lab mislead the council,” Spring said. “They knew in October they planed to do other treatability studies, yet they said they’d close up shop in April.” 

Shepard insists that the transcript from the council meeting proves that she never guaranteed that the oxidation would be completed by April, and that she said there would be no other mixed waste studies performed at the tritium facility, but mentioned the possibility of tritiated mixed waste studies at some of their other facilities. 

This issue has added importance to the upcoming council debate. The CMTW has recently learned that later this year the lab intends to use tritiated mixed waste to study an experimental process, known as biodegradation. 

According to Wendt, the biodegradation study will take place at a different facility within their campus. Although he could not guarantee that no tritium or hazardous waste would be emitted from the studies, he insisted that bio-degradation represented an exciting treatment option that was far more environmentally friendly than incineration or oxidation. 

For Elliot Cohen, of the Peace and Justice Commission, which sent the matter back to council, the future merit of these experiments is not the point. 

“The only way were going to know if this is dangerous is if 30 years from now kids from the neighborhood get sick. There is no reason to subject the community to this type of environmental risk,” Cohen said. 

“This shouldn’t be done on a fault line, in a fire hazard area in such a densely populated community,” he added. 

The tritium facility was originally schedulded to be completed in February or March, but that has been pushed back to July, due to staffing issues and work on other studies, according to Wednt. 

Despite controversy over the delay in closing the tritium facility and continued mixed waste studies, it remains unlikely that the council will vote to fund the lawsuit. 

At the February meeting progressive Councilmember Linda Maio, a former lab employee, sided with council moderates in opposing the lawsuit. Although she could not be reached for comment by press time, her Website includes a statement defending the lab