How much pollution can the world’s rivers and oceans bear before they reach a tipping point and begin collapsing? The BP spill spewed 200 millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. Japanese officials have released thousands of tons of radioactive waste water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant directly into the Pacific Ocean. Fracking, the natural gas extraction process that has caught fire across the country, is jettisoning naturally occurring radioactive material and other known human carcinogens into rivers and other waterways from Pennsylvania to Texas to Colorado. And, one of the latest and most troubling revelations is that the offshore oil and gas industry is dumping hundreds of millions of gallons of radioactive waste water directly into the Gulf of Mexico. See, my recent post entitled, “Chernobyl in the Gulf” (http://www.stuarthsmith.com/chernobyl-in-the-gulf-of-mexico).
Now, according to an article in the Natchez Democrat, the U.S. nuclear industry is making its presence felt, as it scrambles to explain how radioactive tritium was released directly into the Mississippi River from the Grand Gulf Nuclear Plant in Port Gibson. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC) is investigating how tritium – a highly toxic nuclear byproduct – came to be present in standing water at the plant’s abandoned Unit 2 turbine building, and why workers released it directly into the Mississippi River. Apparently, on the heels of heavy rains in the area, plant workers dumped the tritium-laced storm water into the river before conducting any of the required testing.
In fact, the ostensibly illegal release may have gone completely unnoticed by regulators and the public except alarms were triggered while workers were dumping the radioactive material. Senors engaged the “stop flow” on the unit’s release pump. It’s clear from this disturbing event that, as with other industry “accidents” and discharges, regulation is woefully insufficient. I guarantee you that if fines were significant enough and regulatory enforcers were patrolling the field in significant enough numbers, nuclear workers would not dump radioactive waste into waterways. Period. It just wouldn’t happen, because workers would fear for their jobs.
Tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen commonly used in the making of nuclear bombs, is known as a low-energy beta emitter. That means it cannot penetrate human skin, but tritium poses a grave health risk when ingested via food or water. Thus, the release of the still-undetermined amount of tritium directly into the Mississippi River presents a threat to drinking-water sources as well as the food chain. When ingested, tritium will indeed wreak havoc on human cells and damage DNA, which can result in birth defects and cancer. Tritium has a half-life of more than a decade so the threat will persist for a good while around and plant and in the river.
We hear echoes of how Japanese officials downplayed the initial radiation releases from Fukushima in our own country’s “official” dismissals. According to NRC public affairs officer Lara Uselding, we shouldn’t worry about the Grand Gulf release – which should neither surprise nor assure anybody. Ms. Uselding: “Although concentrations of tritium exceeded EPA drinking water limits, the release should not represent a hazard to public health because of its dilution in the river.” If we all had a nickel for every time we heard that, we’d all be sitting on our own private islands somewhere in the Caribbean sipping ice-cold bottled water.
The old, tired and completely debunked industry mantra, “Dilution is the solution to pollution,” doesn’t provide any comfort to those of us who know better. And as an attorney who has prosecuted polluters for years for damages tied to radioactive waste, I can tell you that just because radiation is “diluted” in water or soil (or anything else for that matter) in no way means it doesn’t pose a human health threat.
For example, with oilfield radioactive waste, primarily made up of radium-226, oil companies for years tried to “land farm” their problems away. That is, they would “dilute” the radium by mixing it and combining it with soil. But invariably, “hot spots” would persist which still to this day present a huge risk to the public. Vegetable gardens can come in contact with hot spots and thereby enter the food chain. Children playing in the dirt can easily be exposed. Future development of the land could stir up hot spots and release untold amounts of radiation. The risks associated with the dilution process are virtually endless.
In fact, the risks were significant enough to make public officials and judges order land remediation of radium-tainted areas. The process involves completely removing the top 5 or 6 feet of soil from an entire parcel of land to be sifted through enormously expensive pieces of machinery to separate the radioactive soil from the clean soil. It’s a very costly process. For example, I prosecuted Exxon for contaminating a 33-acre piece of private property in Harvey, Louisiana, with radioactive material. The cost to remediate the property and make it safe again – even after Exxon had “land farmed” the area – was $56 million. And as for punitive damages, the initial award was $1 billion (with a “b”). This is serious stuff, folks.
Obviously, it’s impossible to go back and remove radioactive material from a river like the Mississippi. It can’t be done so the damage from the Grand Gulf release is irreparable. So we must ask ourselves just how much pollution our waterways can take before they start to collapse. Before the fish start dying en masse. Before we can’t treat the water without new technology to make it safe for irrigating crops or drinking. How much can our waters take before they start making us reap what we’ve sown?
Radioactive releases are extremely dangerous, and they pose a grave risk to the general public. Unfortunately, we won’t see any change to the lackadaisical way industry handles its radioactive waste until we see real regulatory changes. We need reform that would make workers loathe to release radioactive waste into our rivers, because they would know they would immediately lose their jobs and they would be personally fined. Until that day comes, we can expect more of the same from our nation’s ballooning list of serial polluters.
In closing, I would allege that at least part of the reason the plant workers in Port Gibson didn’t test the waster water before dumping it into the Mississippi is because there are likely other dangerous radioactive isotopes in it. I would also call for a criminal investigation into what appears to be a cover-up.
Check back soon as we will continue to follow this story closely.
See the Natchez Democrat story here: http://www.natchezdemocrat.com/2011/05/04/radioactive-water-released-into-river-at-grand-gulf/
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