Tuesday, Nov. 25, 1997
Bay's nuclear leftovers Cold War research polluted parks, trees, rainwaterJane Kay and Erin McCormick
OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
LIVERMORE - People in this valley town, where the biggest employer is a U.S. Department of Energy nuclear weapons laboratory, call a city playground "Plutonium Park."
Radiation experts at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory can't explain how particles of plutonium, one of the world's most dangerous radioactive elements, ended up in popular Big Trees Park, adjacent to a school and a half-mile from their site.
Thirty-five miles away in Berkeley, a neighborhood group hanged plastic bags in what they refer to as "Tritium Grove" - a eucalyptus forest between the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Lawrence Hall of Science - just to keep tabs on how much radioactive hydrogen the tree leaves emit.
Across the Bay, Hunters Point and Bayview residents wonder whether toxic waste from radiological labs that operated in secret from the 1950s to 1970 at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard contribute to rates for some types of cancer there that are higher than the rest of The City.
In almost every corner of the Bay Area - from Vallejo's defunct submarine port to Livermore's weapons lab and even 25 miles offshore at the Farallon Islands - the nuclear frenzy of the U.S. arms race has left behind traces of radioactive contamination.
Small amounts of radioactive pollution have been found in tree leaves, discovered in the soil under roadways and public parks, dug up in forgotten dumps and even measured in local rainfall, near a number of nuclear and military sites around the Bay.
And while site managers and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials insist that none of the pollution poses any significant threat to community health, many of those who live nearby are terrified.
At a time when the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and Contra Costa County supervisors are trying to block a federal decision to start shipping high-level nuclear waste through the Bay Area next year, these residents must cope with the effects of decisions of the past.
"By not cleaning up these known hot spots, the government is playing Russian roulette with our children's lives," said Marylia (CQ) Kelley, Livermore lab neighbor and organizer of Tri-Valley Citizens Against a Radioactive Environment.
"There is ample and increasing evidence that extremely low doses of radiation cause genetic damage that can lead to cancer and a whole host of health effects," she said.
Yet government experts say the traces of nuclear pollutants around the Bay Area subject people to less radiation exposure than they get flying in a jet or spending a day in the sun.
"We're bathed in radiation every day. It's coming from cosmic rays in space, bricks, soils, potassium in the bananas that you eat," said Charles Shank, director of Lawrence Berkeley lab, an Energy Department research center that has come under fire for releasing low levels of radioactive tritium into the environment.
Shank said his lab's tritium releases are "like adding a thimbleful of water to Lake Tahoe and saying that it increases chances of drowning."
Paying for past mistakes
The government admits it has made mistakes in handling nuclear material. The Energy Department expects to spend $227 billion and 70 years cleaning up pollution caused by nuclear weapons centers during the Cold War.
The nuclear arms race "left behind an unprecedented environmental legacy," said a 1995 Energy Department report. "The treatment and storage of radioactive and chemical wastes was handled in a way that led to contamination of soil, surface water, and ground water and an enormous backlog of waste and dangerous materials."
In Northern California, the Energy Department expects to spend more than $3 billion to clean up radioactive and chemical contamination from the Cold War. The sites include landfills at Livermore lab where workers carelessly dumped glass jars of radioactive materials in the '50s, a medical research center at UC-Davis, and toxic chemical and tritium contamination in the ground water under the Lawrence Berkeley laboratory.
In addition, the military is spending millions of dollars to clean up contamination at sites such as Hunters Point and Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo.
Officials, however, say all Bay Area sites of nuclear contamination are contained and harmless to the public. The traces of contamination found outside the boundaries of places like Livermore and Berkeley labs have been declared safely below federal standards.
But neighbors, some armed with studies showing elevated rates for certain types of cancer in their areas, aren't convinced.
In Livermore, where plutonium is found in Big Trees Park, residents seek more monitoring and cleanup of substances emitted by Livermore lab.
They point to studies that have shown heightened levels of radioactive tritium in rainwater and agricultural products in the area and lab revelations that accidents in the 1960s and 1970s sent massive doses of tritium into the air.
The lab, which continues to use nuclear materials in research projects, expects to spend more than $2 billion cleaning up its site. Some of the most expensive work will involve cleaning up chemical spills, including a 1-1/4-mile-long underground plume of solvents and other chemicals discovered seeping under the community 15 years ago.
Yet neighbors charge the lab has not done enough testing to identify all the pollution it has caused.
"The Livermore lab is allowed to be here and conduct their business," said Sondra Carnahan, who's lived near Big Trees Park for nearly 20 years. "But they can't turn their backs on the rest of us."
Three years ago, when the EPA revealed the plutonium in the park, Carnahan went door-to-door with a petition asking for testing, posting of signs, and removal of contaminated soil.
None of that has been done. And while Carnahan doesn't want to have to forbid her 5-year-old grandson, Steven, from playing in the park or frighten him with stories about radiation, she wishes she could be sure it was safe.
Officials at Livermore lab, which uses plutonium-239 in nuclear weapons research, say the quantities of plutonium in the park are too low to hurt anyone or require cleanup or extra monitoring.
"We follow or exceed our regulatory guidelines," said Burt Heffner, spokesman for the lab, which already takes 18,700 samples a year of everything from air and sewage to local foodstuffs. "We do what is required and beyond."
"An acceptable risk'
Michael Gill, an EPA radiation expert in charge of the Livermore lab's cleanup under the national Superfund program, found the plutonium in the park while looking for clean samples to use as a comparison to the contaminated lab property.
Gill found one patch of park soil that showed plutonium levels 100 times higher than what would normally be expected from global nuclear weapons fallout.
But the concentrations were less than those the EPA has set as the health alert level for residential areas - a level that estimates an increased chance of cancer of one in 1 million over 30 years.
"From a bureaucratic standpoint, this is an acceptable risk under the regulations," Gill said.
But Dr. Robert M. Gould, a national board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said the EPA's model doesn't take into account the risk to an individual child playing in a dirt pile contaminated with plutonium.
"The trouble with plutonium is that one particle in the right place can cause a cancer," said Gould, a Kaiser Permanente pathologist in San Jose. "If you're in a place where the dust is getting stirred up, you're more likely to have a particle get into your lungs where it can cause danger."
No one is sure if the plutonium came to the park through air emissions from the lab, runoff water from the lab, or some radioactively contaminated sewage sludge, which was accidentally released to the city water treatment plant by the lab in 1967.
A 1995 state study found that young people in Livermore had 2.4 times the number of malignant melanoma cases than what would be expected nationwide. Livermore-born children had 6.4 times the number of expected cases.
Earlier studies showed that in the 1960s, Livermore children had brain cancer three times as often as children in the rest of the county. But that trend did not appear in studies after 1969.
"We're trying to look at ways that there could have been exposure in the past to the community around Livermore," said Marilyn Underwood, a toxicologist in the state Environmental Health Investigations branch. "Some people feel that no amount of stuff in the environment is proper. But when you're a regulator, there are these acceptable levels that you have to work with. It's a tough one. It keeps rearing its head."
Tritium in tree leaves
In Berkeley, tritium use at Lawrence Berkeley lab has created a cloud of community controversy.
Pharmaceutical companies and private institutions go to the lab to use tritium to trace the behavior of molecules in animals and human tissue in research that could lead to cures for disease.
Yet, thousands of Berkeley citizens have signed petitions asking that the lab stop making legal releases of tritium into the environment. In September 1996, the Berkeley City Council, which has no authority over the lab, resolved it should shut down.
Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean, complaining about tritium in tree leaves, rain, creeks and ground water, asked for help from congressional representatives and President Clinton.
Since tritium emits a relatively low-energy particle and, once inside the human body, spends a shorter time than most other radioactive materials, nuclear scientists consider it less harmful. Yet researchers say that, in the body, it can irradiate surrounding tissue and possibly cause cancer, genetic defects and reproductive and developmental damage.
While lab officials say they are dramatically reducing the amount of tritium emissions, local residents have been shocked to discover the radioactive pollution in rain and stream water nearby.
In 1994, water collected in a rain gauge at the Lawrence Hall of Science showed concentrations of tritium 11 times the EPA's standard for drinking water.
A lab sampling also detected tritium in nearby Strawberry Creek and in Wildcat Creek, more than a mile away. In addition, studies have found higher-than-recommended drinking water levels in the ground water under the lab.
The Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, a citizens group, is calling for the state and the EPA to test vegetation and soils in people's yards in the area. It wants a study that shows how much the lab has released since it opened and what the cumulative effects might be.
"We're fighting with EPA and the state Department of Health Services," said group co-chair Pamela Sihvola. (CQ) "Nobody's interested in what happened historically. It's absolutely astounding to me."
Last year, experts brought in by the group put out plastic bags for weeks at a time and found that trees outside the lab were taking up tritium in their roots from moisture in soils, and transpiring tritium through their leaves.
EPA's Region 9 radiation expert Shelly Rosenblum has deemed the emissions below federal benchmarks and of inconsequential risk.
But Dr. Marion Fulk, a retired 20-year staff scientist at the Livermore lab, said the Lawrence Berkeley lab is exposing people to tritium without their permission.
"These benchmarks aren't safe limits. They are arbitrary levels based on a committee's judgment at the time. They are continuing to go down constantly."
Lab Director Charles Shank said, "How low is low enough? If the answer is zero, it doesn't make a lot of sense. We have a facility that is creating a public good. I'm absolutely confident that what we have done at the lab is absolutely safe."
Across the Bay, closure of Hunters Point Naval Shipyard has left behind San Francisco's worst toxic waste dump and a legacy of nuclear and chemical pollution that residents fear may have a long-term effect on health in their low-income neighborhoods.
For decades, people there lived unknowingly in the shadow of a nuclear shipping port and radiological experimentation center.
When residents learned two years ago that their districts had higher-than-normal rates of breast and cervical cancers, they wondered if military pollution had played a part.
After atomic testing off Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, for instance, the shipyard was used to wash off and clean up dozens of Navy ships contaminated by blasts. The radioactive sandblast from the ships was dumped both in the Bay near Hunters Point and at sea, part of an estimated 47,500 drums thrown off boats southwest of the Farallon Islands from 1946 to 1970.
The drums are still there, but the EPA says it has tested bay mud at Hunters Point and found no evidence of radioactive contamination, from the sand blasting or anything else.
"Yes, there's a concern'
The Navy says most of the radiation in the ground at Hunters Point has been cleaned up. But residents are dismayed at a plan to leave behind tons of radioactive instruments that were dumped there.
From the 1950s until 1969, Hunters Point housed one of the main U.S. Naval Radiological Defense Laboratories, which tested the effects of radiation on animals.
All but four of the 20 radiological sites identified by the Navy have been cleaned up, said Michael McClelland, environmental coordinator for the Hunters Point shipyard, which has become a Superfund cleanup site.
The remaining sites include one that has stirred community controversy: the 600-foot-wide resting place for 2,700 dials and markers, painted with radioactive radium.
The Navy is thinking of leaving the materials in place and capping them, saying it's an acceptable practice for closing landfills. Moving 550 dump trucks of instruments and contaminated soil could cost $10 million.
"There is no exposure to people. People are kept out of the area," said McClelland, adding that it is accessible to ducks, shorebirds and other wildlife.
The San Francisco Department of Public Health, which conducted the cancer study in Bayview-Hunters Point, can't say whether past military or industrial activities contributed to the heightened level of cancers in the neighborhood.
But Richardson said it's imperative to remove the waste that's left.
"People will not want to live down the street if they know radium-226 is buried everywhere," she said, "concentrations were below EPA action levels, no cleanup has been done"