October 2, 2004
IEL report shows no radiation threat
By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON — A federal ombudsman concluded in a report issued Friday there is no radioactive threat to the public at the Industrial Excess Landfill in Lake Township, contrary to the fears of some local residents.
The study from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General’s Office also found that the EPA acted properly in selecting natural attenuation as the method to clean up the Superfund site. Attenuation relies on the planting of trees and other vegetation to help break down contaminants in the soil over a period of years or decades.
But in a note of caution, the report also said procedures used to test for radiation at the landfill cannot rule out radioactive contamination.
Concerned Citizens of Lake Township, which originally asked the EPA’s ombudsman to study the landfill, expressed disappointment in the report.
Chris Borello, president of the group, said it was “completely baffling and inconceivable” that the study would find no radiation danger when one of the experts who contributed to the report said radioactive contamination could not be ruled out.
At the very least, she said, the ombudsman should have told the EPA to allow Concerned Citizens of Lake Township’s request to perform its own testing of landfill ground water. She said the group has received a $50,000 grant to do the testing, but the EPA has refused the request.
Lake Township Trustee Sue Ruley found little new in the study.
“I just think it’s more of the same questions and same answers that we’ve been getting for the last umpteen years,” Ruley said.
Paul D. McKechnie, acting ombudsman for the EPA’s inspector general, initiated the study last year in response to long-standing concerns from Borello and others.
Borello has argued for years that the EPA did not conduct sufficiently rigorous testing to determine if radioactive waste was buried at the closed landfill. Several witnesses have claimed that the Army covertly dumped radioactive plutonium at the site, but a federal judge who reviewed the claims found no evidence for them.
Borello’s group also has opposed the EPA’s approval of a plan allowing contaminants at the landfill to naturally deteriorate. A more costly alternative would be to force several companies responsible for the cleanup to build a protective cap over the landfill.
Radiation testing at the landfill since 1999 “identified measurable amounts of radiation” in ground water and soil at the site, McKechnie’s report said. “However, the levels in ground water were generally below the (federal-required cleanup level) for drinking water and the levels in the soil were below the levels requiring cleanup action.”
The study said “since radiation levels found at IEL do not pose a danger to public health, EPA properly discounted radiation as a concern at IEL.”
The ombudsman report also concluded that the EPA followed its policy in choosing monitored natural attenuation as the cleanup method.
The study said the site was “appropriately sampled and analyzed” by the agency. The report adds that “contaminants from (the landfill) that could pose a danger to public health were being appropriately monitored.”
Nevertheless, radiation expert Melvyn Gascoyne, a Canadian scientist retained by McKechnie to evaluate radiation testing at the landfill, cast some doubt on its significance.
Gascoyne reviewed tests conducted in 2000 and 2001 by several companies that are responsible for cleaning up the site, including B.F. Goodrich, Goodyear, Bridgestone/Firestone and GenCorp.
Although the tests proved there is no threat to public health in the ground water, Gascoyne said they were not sensitive enough to rule out the possibility that “minor concentrations” of radioactive waste from the landfill were leaking into the ground water.
The tests also did not rule out the presence of “sealed, inert containers of radioactive waste,” he said.
“It is my opinion that most of the problems and concern that have perpetuated throughout the history of the IEL regarding the possible presence of radioactive waste at the site remain unresolved following the 2000 and 2001 sampling, because the analytical methods used were only adequate to show that the ground water met drinking water standards,” Gascoyne said.
Gascoyne recommended that if further testing takes place at the landfill, it should include more sensitive tests, which he said would “increase the public’s confidence in the EPA’s claim that no radioactive waste is in the landfill.”
The EPA contends that tests showing small amounts of radiation in the landfill are reflecting natural background radiation that is present all over the world, and doesn’t mean waste was buried at the site.
In comments included in the report, Bharat Mathur, acting director of EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago, expressed general approval of the study.
However, he disagreed with several of Gascoyne’s conclusions.
“Dr. Gascoyne’s statement implies that more sensitive testing could establish categorically the absence of radioactive contamination” at the landfill, Mathur said. “Region 5 questions whether that is indeed the case.”
In 1994, Mathur said, a panel of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board “declared that it would never be possible to establish unequivocally the absence of radioactive contamination at IEL or anywhere else for that matter.”
He added that the 2000 and 2001 test results “are consistent with earlier rounds of radiation sampling in the 1990s, tending to support the conclusion that there is no radioactive contamination in the landfill.”
Paul Wolford, a spokesman for the companies responsible for paying for the landfill cleanup, said based on the little he had heard of the report, it was “good news.”
“We’ve got mounds of data that said it’s a dying landfill and there’s no problem with radioactive waste, either,” he said.
Ruley said she was not concerned by Gascoyne’s inability to rule out radioactive contamination.
“I don’t think there’s any buried radioactive waste there,” she said.