Las Vegas Review Journal
Sunday, October 25, 1998
Excluding EPA from nuclear checks worries residents near testing site
Department of Energy officials call the decision streamlining, but critics say the fox is now guarding the henhouse.
By Keith Rogers
When a government technician turned off the solar-powered air-monitoring station at Helen Uhalde's ranch last week, she said she felt betrayed, as if the days of atmospheric testing had returned to the Nevada Test Site.
"It's like we're Guinea pigs again," she said from her ranch, in a remote part of Nye County, 65 miles from the nuclear weapons proving ground.
The station was one of nine around the sprawling nuclear weapons proving ground to be shut down. Department of Energy officials describe the move as part of a streamlined monitoring program that, rather than relying on the Environmental Protection Agency to check for radioactive releases into the air and ground water, now relies primarily on contractors.
Uhalde, 70, whose family has grazed sheep and cattle since 1936 at their Adaven Ranch, said her son and daughter have been treated for cancers and "strange tumors." She said she believes they are linked to wind-blown radioactive materials from U.S. nuclear weapons tests.
"They used to send us monthly or quarterly reports, and I was amazed because the plutonium was always high at the ranch. We were one of the higher places among all that they listed," she said, referring to decades of sample collections.
Her nearest neighbor 14 miles away, sculptor Michael Heizer, said he, too, is concerned that cancer-causing, plutonium-laced soil could now blow across his land without being detected and with no time for evacuation.
"They wanted to evacuate us one time. What if a twister hit and the stuff went airborne?" he asked, referring to surface plutonium contamination scattered over 108 square miles, or about 8 percent, of the 1,350-square-mile test site.
Beginning last week, the EPA began collecting only about 1 percent of the air and water samples that it collected and analyzed last fiscal year -- 40 instead of 4,000. All the samples will now be analyzed at a certified laboratory operated on site by the DOE's prime contractor, Bechtel Nevada, instead of the EPA lab in Las Vegas.
Seventeen communities including Las Vegas, Boulder City, Amargosa Valley and St. George, Utah, will continue to monitor the air and collect samples for the Desert Research Institute under a $300,000 DOE contract.
Each station manager will send in a combined total of 804 air filter samples per year for analysis at the Bechtel Nevada lab.
That program, according to Amargosa Valley's station manager, Michelle DeLee, also continues to transmit data daily on radioactivity in the air. The measurements are relayed to satellites and distributed to a Web site.
She said she had little forewarning that the EPA's role in the program would be slashed. She said she found out during the summer that "we might have to fight for the program." Instead, upgrades were made to her station.
The work the EPA did for the DOE for collection and analysis of samples has been cut to $600,000, down from $1.8 million. The state is still slated to receive $200,000 for samples to be collected and analyzed at sites it selects.
Energy Department officials said the cost to operate both the off-site and on-site monitoring programs is $3.1 million this year, down from $5.2 million last year.
Gregg Dempsey, the EPA's local director for environmental monitoring, said his office contested the decision by sending DOE officials "a very strongly worded letter saying we don't agree with this."
The Sept. 25 letter from Jed Harrison, director of the EPA's national radiation laboratory, to Kenneth Hoar, director of DOE's Environment, Safety and Health Division, said the monitoring plan "is not a consensus document" and to attach the EPA's seal to it is misleading.
Dempsey said the EPA's monitoring laboratory at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas has run the program since 1970. Prior to that, the EPA's predecessor agency -- the U.S. Public Health Service -- had monitored the test site since the first device was detonated there in 1951.
Dempsey predicts curtailment of the EPA's role will affect how the public perceives the monitoring program. "They trusted us, and this was basically pulled away from us all of a sudden," he said, noting that as many as a dozen layoffs could result.
"The role of EPA around the Nevada Test Site they told us after next year is gone," he said.
The revamped program has drawn criticism not only from rural residents and the EPA but also from Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., who has fielded complaints about the cutbacks. Bryan said he intends to send a letter to the DOE.
"I think there is an inherent conflict in having the DOE monitoring itself. It's akin to the fox trotting down the lane to guard the hen house," Bryan said.
"This is not just a debate between two agencies. This presents a question of public health and safety, and most Nevadans will be more comfortable with the EPA making those reports," Bryan said. He said there has been trust built over the years with the EPA's handling of the program.
The decision by Department of Energy team leader Doug Duncan to scale back the Environmental Protection Agency's role in the monitoring program and go with in-house analysis came with no public input.
As DOE spokesman Darwin Morgan said: "It's a contractual issue between DOE and EPA.
"We had been looking at ways to run the program more efficiently and save the taxpayers money. We should have done a better job of getting out and talking to" the communities in the program, Morgan said.
Duncan, in an interview at the department's North Las Vegas office, said that air monitors and wells primarily north of the test site were no longer needed because full-scale U.S. nuclear testing ceased in 1992 after 41 years of atomic detonations in Nevada. One hundred were conducted in the atmosphere and the rest -- 828 -- were below ground.
He said the rural residents should not worry about plutonium releases to the air because "if something were to happen, we'd see it" at the test site before any contamination could escape beyond the boundary.
"We're compliant with the standard on site. We're safe on the site and the boundaries so we know they're safe," he said.
Duncan said a model of how ground water flows from the test site persuaded him to eliminate seven sampling locations -- including Adaven Springs -- north and east of the test site, focusing instead on detecting subsurface, radioactive releases south and west. That's where 37 wells and springs will be checked every one to three years, instead of the 21 off-site and 25 on-site locations that were sampled quarterly by the EPA. Bechtel Nevada will continue to sample ground water at the test site.
"They have zero risk from nuclear testing. There's no reason to monitor that water," Duncan said about the northern wells and springs.
Duncan estimates that about 20 of the 828 below-ground test cavities -- some at or near the water table -- have leaked radioactive materials at distances ranging from one-fifth of a mile to one mile. But so far, none of the contamination, largely from tritium, has been detected in water samples off site. Tritium has a half-life of about 12 years and calculations show that most, if not all this radioactive form of hydrogen, would decay to safe levels by the time the water containing it reaches the site's boundary, with the possible exception of test cavities in the Pahute Mesa area.
Scientists have said they don't expect that longer-lived radionuclides -- fission products from the splitting of plutonium and uranium atoms -- will escape or migrate far from the test cavities where they've been welded to bedrock from the intense heat and pressures of the detonations.
But those calculations and assumptions don't satisfy all the test site's rural neighbors and the leader of a statewide environmental group, Rick Nielsen.
"It's appalling," said Nielsen, executive director of Citizen Alert. "The DOE has given us no warning or briefing on the matter.
"The whole idea that DOE can regulate itself and arbitrarily close these monitors goes against the grain in the debate as to whether there should be external regulation for the DOE complex," he said.
Ken Garey, an Amargosa Valley resident since 1963, said sample analysis "should be maintained within the independent EPA program. Let the labs and contractors continue with their 'modeling,' but leave the public monitoring to an agency that has proven capability and a longtime, public confidence level."
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Environmental Protection Agency specialist Don James collects a water sample from Coffer's Windmill at Coffer's Ranch in 1995, when the EPA sustained its first cutbacks to the monitoring program for the Nevada Test Site after the Cold War. Water from the well at the ranch, six miles from the test site, will still be sampled less frequently for radioactive contamination in light of cuts this year that shut down nine air-monitoring stations and seven water sampling locations.
Photo by Gary Thompson.