Saturday, July 28, 2012

PCB Standards Disputed

A week ago Thursday (July 12, 2012, 5:30PM - 7:30PM) Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) sponsored a community meeting at the Cities of Gold Conference Room in Pojoaque, New Mexico, to present material related to storm water contaminant control at LANL, to answer questions from the general public, and to satisfy legal requirements of the settlement of a lawsuit, filed against LANL by local citizen activists.

Particularly interesting was a talk by LANL staff member Armand Groffman who spoke about LANL's measurement of contaminant concentrations in groundwater, in the surrounding area, and the collection and interpretation of these data; e.g., especially as they related to polychloro biphenyls (PCB's). Evidently, Groffman was himself involved in the measurement and analysis of these data. A report has been issued: "PCBs in Precipitation and Stormwater within the Upper Rio Grande Watershed" (however, no author is listed on the report LA-UR-12-1081, ERID-21967, EP2012-0047, dated May 2012.)

At Thursday's Pojoaque meeting, Groffman described these PCB data, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards to which they should be compared. Then, when prompted by a LANL staff member in the audience, he pointed out that the so-called Target Action Limit (TAL) for this contaminant was only 0.65 ppt (parts per trillion), which was ~20x smaller than the lowest level of PCB concentration found to exist in non-industrial areas, locally. He implied that the EPA standard seemed to be too low; i.e., since it was much lower than any northern NM "background" level.

He failed to make clear that the more relevant Drinking water Standard (DWS) for PCB is actually 500 ppt, according to both EPA and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), a number ~ 5x greater than the largest PCB concentration found to exist at non-industrial sites, locally. The TAL, however, is the maximum level of PCB contamination suggested by EPA and NMED for streamwaters containing aquatic life forming a part of the food supply of local people; i.e., since aquatic life tends to accumulate and concentrate PCB's found in streamwater.

Which then is the appropriate standard to be applied to the population at large? Clearly, the DWS is already the  standard being applied, generally, for drinking water. Indeed, EPA says that if water contains PCB levels below 500 ppt, and all other contaminants are below the EPA standard as well, then it is safe for everybody to drink, with no restrictions. 

But, it is necessary to reconcile the DWS with the TAL, when drinking water and streamwater are one and the same, perhaps on a case-by-case basis. On the other hand, this is hardly a reason to imply that EPA standards are over-restrictive, generally.

Unfortunately, LANL and NMED seem to be  positioning themselves for future disputes with EPA over environmental monitoring. In their Framework Agreement of this past January, LANL and NMED have agreed to limit the future expense of "unnecessary" environmental monitoring, whenever this would seem to be possible. The following excerpts from the Framework Agreement are relevant. (The Agreement was announced by LANL and NMED on Jan. 6, 2012, though no actual date was afixed to the text of the Agreement, nor were the names of any responsible parties included.)


"3. DOE/NNSA and NMED agree that in order to achieve the most rapid progress feasible in completing the highest priority activities at the Laboratory, planning, characterization and implementation activities for all remediation actions must be carried out in a cost effective and efficient way that provides full protection of human health and the environment and takes advantage of lessons learned both from previous work performed at the site and nationally."

 "a. NMED will require the collection and reporting of characterization and monitoring data which is necessary and sufficient to assure protection of human health and the environment. NMED will reduce the frequency of data collection and reporting where prior results indicate very low or no risk (e.g., no results above applicable standards)."

"4. NMED commits to follow pertinent EPA guidance except where such guidance is not supported by sound science."

A related effort seems to be underway to limit the expense of certain safety and security procedures being performed at LANL and the two other primary US nuclear weapons laboratories, and of oversight of the safety of operations at these laboratories by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. The National Research Council may have become a party to this effort. In a recent report NRC advised Congress that, since there have been no serious accidents at nuclear weapons facilities in recent times, the necessity for continued very rigorous safety controls might now be questioned. In particular, NRC questions the value of continued DNFSB oversight of safety procedures at the nuclear weapons labs. It appears that this may be primarily a matter of money. (See: "Managing for High-Quality Science and Engineering at the NNSA National Security Laboratories", National Research Council, Feb. 15, 2012.)

To quote a few examples from the NRC report:

Example (1) - "Recommendation 5.1 - The Study Committee recommends that the NNSA, Congress, and top management of the Laboratories recognize that safety and security systems at the Laboratories have been strengthened to the point that they no longer need special attention. NNSA and laboratory management should explore ways by which the administrative, safety, and security costs can be reduced, so that they not impose an excessive burden on essential S&E activities."

Example (2) - "Appendix 3. - Evolving and Persistent Issues in the Management of the Nuclear Weapons Laboratories, such as ...  4. Excessive numbers of reviews and oversight by external organizations, particularly by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board."

Example (3) - (on p64) "The role that non-regulatory agencies (particularly the DNFSB) have had on the laboratories is excessive. Although the Board lacks independent regulatory enforcement authority, it has issued more than 30 recommendations to the Secretary of Energy since 1990 ... ."

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