Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#147 - Mr. Reilly's EPA Develops Strategy For Solving Nation's Waste Problems, 18-Sep-1989

It is now clear that American industry and its acolytes in government
have hit upon a major strategy for solving the nation's problems of
chemical contamination.

Increasingly, industry and government are learning to define old
problems in new ways, and in the redefinition the problems disappear.
Barry Commoner has called this "linguistic detoxification" and it has
now been elevated to the level of major policy in William Reilly's EPA.

Take, for example, the problem of regulating benzene. The EPA has
recently announced that it is acceptable to kill one in every 10,000
Americans exposed to benzene. (See RHWN #95; referring back to #95, EPA
has adopted method "C.") Thus the problem of having to exercise tight
control over benzene has been defined away by simply declaring that
it's not a problem to kill large numbers of people. (If all Americans
were exposed to the allowable limit of benzene, 24,300 would die a
slow, painful death each year, victims of benzene-induced cancers,
according to EPA's calculations.)

As we saw a few weeks ago, NEWSWEEK magazine, which often echoes the
sentiments of those who make industrial decisions for America, declared
it should be national policy to "forget Love Canal" because Superfund
sites are "boring." (See RHWN #139.) We will see later this fall how
Mr. Reilly's EPA comes out on this issue when it publishes
a "comprehensive" Superfund cleanup plan, including a definition
of "how clean is clean." This will be a big opportunity for linguistic
detoxification (you simply define something that's dirty as "clean" and
declare that "clean" sites needn't be cleaned up). We are betting Mr.
Reilly will jump at this chance. It would be nice if we were wrong.

However, evidence seems to indicate otherwise: EPA is currently working
aggressively to define away the nation's radioactive waste problem.

EPA, in concert with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the
nuclear power industry, are about to declare one-third of the nation's
low-level nuclear wastes as "below regulatory concern," (BRC) which
will allow them to be dumped into ordinary municipal landfills and
incinerators. IT MAY HAPPEN AS SOON AS THIS MONTH. With a swipe of the
pen, Mr. Reilly and his overlords at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
are going to convert vast quantities of "radioactive" wastes
into "nonradioactive" wastes without changing the physical or chemical
characteristics of those wastes at all.

As a result, the two largest producers of radioactive wastes--nuclear
power plant operators, and the military-will be able to stop worrying
where to put huge inventories of radioactive pipes, instruments, tools,
sludges, filters, resins, soils, clothing, and other objects
contaminated with radioactivity. They will be able to set them out at
the curb in garbage cans where they will be picked up by unsuspecting
garbage haulers, taken to dumpsters, and eventually buried in the
ground, incinerated in municipal incinerators or RECYCLED INTO NEW
CONSUMER PRODUCTS. If there's a garbage spill in your neighborhood, too
bad for you. You won't even know you're being exposed to radiation
unless you happen to own a geiger counter or other sophisticated
measuring instrument. If you are a conscientious operator of a dump or
incinerator, too bad for you: there will be no way for you to know when
radioactive materials are being brought through the gate because
there's no way you could monitor each truckload with a geiger counter,
and radioactive wastes will bear no special markings or labels.
(Conveniently, the federal Department of Transportation [DOT] is
cooperating in the EPA-NRC BRC proposal; DOT has agreed to remove its
current requirements for placards and labels during transportation.) If
you are a citizen who purchases a kitchen sink, child's toy, cooking
utensil or other consumer item made with radioactive recycled metal,
NRC and EPA want you to be happy and don't worry: the risks are small,
the benefits large, they say. What benefits, you ask?

The expensive requirements of handling radioactive wastes--labeling
them, monitoring them, transporting them in special containers, making
maps of where they're buried, maintaining careful records for future
generations--all these requirements will be unnecessary for BRC wastes
if Mr. Reilly and the NRC have their way. The nuclear industry and the
military will thus gain from EPA-NRC largesse in two ways: The nuclear
industry's 100-or-so reactors are getting old, and the federal weapons
program has some 280 installations that have nearly outlived their
usefulness. All of these facilities will soon have to be dismantled
pipe by pipe, tank by tank, and thrown away. Under the new BRC rules,
much of this stuff will go to the city dump instead of being shipped to
a radioactive waste burial tomb under constant guard; the nuclear power
industry will save dollars and the atomic warriors will save face and
dollars. For example, the military has recently admitted that cleanup
of its past slovenly practices (see RHWN #124) will cost $45 to $70
billion, and some estimates exceed $100 billion. The EPA-NRC alchemy to
define away much of this problem is a fabulous boon for the sloppiest
industry the world has ever known.

Consider the impact at just one facility, the Idaho National
Engineering Laboratory. There the EPA's and NRC's BRC rules would allow
the government to change the definition of 50% of its 2.3 million cubic
foot inventory of radioactive garbage. Clearly, it's a way of passing
today's costly problems onto tomorrow's children: the radioactive
wastes won't have become less dangerous--we simply won't have to pay
for their management today. And the harm done to our children? That's
our children's problem don't you know. It's a very Reagan-Bush solution
to a very expensive problem.

The name of the EPA-NRC proposal to linguistically detoxify radioactive
wastes is BRC (below regulatory concern). The BRC proposal is rushing
forward, and the only hope of stopping it is for local communities,
counties, even utility authorities who own dumps or incinerators, to
adopt resolutions in opposition, and for citizens to write strong
letters to William Reilly, to the NRC, and to their Senators and
Representatives. But you've got to act quickly.

Write: William Reilly, EPA, 401 M St., SW, Washington, DC 20460; and
write U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Attention: Docketing &
Service Branch; Re: Below Regulatory Concern Petition, Washington, DC
20555; for questions or NRC documents, phone William Lahs at NRC: (301)

The best article on this problem, and what it means for local
NRC EFFORTS, appeared in the April-June issue of The Workbook.

Get: Diane D'Arrigo, Judith Johnsrud, and Lynda Taylor, "NIMBY:
Nukewaste in My Backyard?" THE WORKBOOK Vol. 14 (April/June, 1989),
pgs. 46-55. Reprints of this excellent expos, are available for $2.00
from: Southwest Research and Information Center, P.O. Box 4524,
Albuquerque, NM 87106; phone (505) 2621862. THE WORKBOOK is a quarterly
journal of environmental-social change that costs $12.00 per year; a
true bargain. You should also stay in touch with the Nuclear
Information Resource Service (NIRS), Suite 601, 1424 16th St., NW,
Washington, DC 20036; (202) 328-0002.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: radioactive waste; llw; epa; dot; transportation;
msw; landfilling; incineration; regulations; brc; military; nuclear