Tuesday, February 9, 1999

Mystery surrounds INEEL health records

By Tim Jackson
Of The Journal

ARCO DESERT - Officials are trying to determine whether workers destroyed or permanently lost historical documents of value to ongoing Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory health studies.

"We don't know how bad off we are yet," said C.M. Wood, a health physicist working for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Wood is technical adviser to CDC's ongoing multi-million-dollar, taxpayer- funded examination of whether anyone who worked at or lived near the Arco Desert nuclear site during the past 50 years received harmful doses of radiation or hazardous chemicals.

He said by the end of the month researchers hope to be able to determine how much, if at all, the document loss might hurt the quality of the study. "There's every intention to retain everything of importance to the study," said Bob Jones, U.S. Department of Energy's deputy for communications and management to CDC for the Historical Dose Reconstruction study. "We as a department have made an error and had some documents get away from us."

Of about 5,000 boxes of INEEL records that CDC identified as possibly relevant to the health studies, 62 are unaccounted for, Jones said. Of those, CDC had identified 10 as definitely having relevance for health researchers. The rest have either likely relevance or possible relevance.

As of last week, INEEL investigators had recovered documents that were in four of the 10 most valued boxes, Jones said.

DOE since 1992 has had a freeze on destruction of health-related records at all of its sites, including INEEL. But until last November, nobody at INEEL cross-checked additional boxes CDC researchers had identified as pertinent to the health studies with the freeze order.

Workers are doing that now along with other actions in hopes of finding and retrieving relevant documents, Jones said. It's possible some documents useful to the studies is permanently lost, Jones acknowledged.

But he added that with a plan now in place to correct the problem, it's likely that all or most will find their way back into the study.

The plan includes strategies for finding information from lost boxes at other locations within DOE's massive record storage network.

Chuck Brocious is a member of CDC's INEEL Health Effects Subcommittee. He pointed out that the study is about warning people who worked at or lived near INEEL whether they face added risks from diseases, including cancer, from INEEL's past releases into the environment.

He complained that DOE has had since 1994 to protect those documents, but has failed. That was when CDC identified a list of relevant documents. "The document destruction hemorrhaging has to end. Whether it has ended remains to be seen," Brocious said.

Tim Jackson covers the environment and INEEL for the Journal. He can be reached by phone at 232-4161, Ext. 282, or e-mail at tjackson@journalnet.com