The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is poised to issue guidelines that would set radiation limits for drinking water during the “intermediate period” after the releases from a radioactive emergency, such as an accident at a nuclear power plant, have been brought under control. The emergency limits would allow the public to be exposed to radiation levels hundreds and even thousands of times higher than typically allowed by federal law.
Opponents say that under the proposed guidelines, concentration limits for several types of radionuclides would allow a lifetime permissible dose in a week or a month, or the equivalent of 250 chest x-rays a year, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group that represents government employees.
The EPA has stressed that the proposal is aimed at guiding state and local leaders during a crisis and would not change existing federal radiation limits for the water we drink every day, which are much more stringent, and assume there may be decades of regular consumption. Critics of the new proposal say the emergency guidelines are a public relations ploy to play down the dangers of radiation and provide cover for an agency that fumbled during the Fukushima disaster in 2011.
The emergency limits are even higher than those proposed by the EPA during the final days of the Bush administration, which withdrew the proposal after facing public scrutiny and left the Obama administration with the job of finalizing the guidelines.
Now, in the twilight of the Obama administration, the EPA’s “Protective Action Guidelines” for drinking water are once again drawing fire from nuclear watchdogs and public officials.
“The message here is that the American public should learn to love radiation, and that much higher levels than what are set by the statutory limits are OK,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group that represents government employees.
EPA Caught With Its “Pants Down” During Fukushima
As Truthout reported at the time, the EPA told the public that radiation from the disaster would not reach the US at levels high enough to pose a public health concern, even as the agency’s own data showed concentrations of radionuclides in rain water far exceeding federal drinking water standards. As Japan struggled with a major nuclear crisis and the media debated the relative danger of radioactive plumes blowing about the world’s atmosphere, the EPA quietly stopped running extra tests for radiation less than two months after the disaster began.
By then, samples of cow’s milk, rain and drinking water from across the country tested positive for radiation from the Fukushima plant, and nuclear critics warned that it was difficult to tell whether there could be impacts on human health in the absence of enhanced radiation monitoring.
The EPA’s radiation division is now on the verge of approving a long-awaited update to its Protective Action Guidelines for responding to such a “large-scale emergency.” Ruch said employees from other divisions of the EPA were cut out of the decision-making process, and internal EPA documents indicate that the concentration limits were set higher than those detected during Fukushima to cover for the EPA’s embarrassing performance.
No Safe Dose of Radiation
In June, the EPA put the proposal up for public comment, but only made limits for four types of radionuclides publicly available. Critics say the agency still received 60,000 comments opposing the guidelines, including statements from 65 environmental groups. PEER sued the agency under the Freedom of Information Act in October, and the EPA released the proposed limits for dozens of other radionuclides just days before the Christmas holiday.
Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear watchdog group, attended a briefing with EPA officials on Thursday and told Truthout that the agency intends to finalize the guidelines despite ongoing protests.