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Citizens Watch Newsletter December 2002

New State Report Looks at Plutonium in Your Garden

By Inga Olson
From Tri-Valley CAREs' December 2002 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

Documented in a new California Department of Health Services (CDHS) report, unintentional releases of plutonium from Livermore Lab resulted in contamination to the sewage sludge at the Livermore Water Reclamation Plant (LWRP). The largest accident likely occurred between May 25 and June 15, 1967 when unknown quantities of Plutonium-239 and Americium-241 flowed from Livermore Lab drains into the city's sewer system.

Using routine monitoring data compiled by the Lab, its employees have estimated that 32 millicuries of Pu 239/Am 241 were released to the sewer during that time. According to the Lab's incident analysis, the source of the releases could not be definitively established because low-level radioactivity was routinely released to the sewer from Building 127.

Years later, other agencies looked at Livermore Lab's data and concluded that the amount of plutonium escaping into the sewer system could not be precisely determined because the Lab had analyzed the LWRP liquid effluent when much of the radioactive metal could have become incorporated into the solids.

From 1958-1976, sewage sludge that may have been contaminated with plutonium from Livermore Lab was made available to an unsuspecting public and municipal agencies for use as a soil amendment. Neither the location of the contaminated sludge nor the levels of plutonium in the sludge are known. However, it is known that plutonium emits ionizing radiation, and exposure by inhalation or ingestion can lead to an increased risk of cancer and other health problems. The impacts of contamination reach far into the future because Plutonium-239 has a radioactive half-life that spans more than 24,000 years.

With the release of the CDHS report, "Proposed Process to Address the Historic Distribution of Sewage Sludge Containing Plutonium Releases from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory," a process to address the community's concerns may finally begin. The report was produced by the state in collaboration with representatives from the Alameda County Environmental Health Department, the City of Livermore, and three community groups, Western States Legal Foundation, SF Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility and Tri-Valley CAREs.

The report recommends the following actions:

  • That the Dept. of Energy's Livermore Lab, where the plutonium originated, provide funding for Alameda County to implement a process to address the historic distribution of sludge.

  • That Alameda County establish committees with full citizen participation to guide the decision-making process.

  • That Alameda County establish a toll-free number and provide information so that members of the public can make informed decisions about sampling.

  • The report also identifies issues needing further consideration, including:

  • Developing criteria for analysis and interpretation of laboratory results before sampling is started.

  • Determining a trigger level and procedure for removal of contaminated soil.

  • Legal issues regarding the sampling results, such as disclosure, property values and likelihood of compensation.

  • In June 2002, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) released its own draft exposure assessment of the potential health implications of the plutonium-contaminated sludge. The ATSDR assessment concluded that historic levels of plutonium in LWRP sludge would not have resulted in exposure doses exceeding 100 millirem per year and, therefore, are not a health concern.

    However, the new CDHS report recommends that dose limits suggested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for Superfund sites be considered. Livermore Lab is a Superfund cleanup site. From a regulatory perspective, the U.S. EPA does not consider the effective dose limit of 100 millirem a year protective of health, because it equates to an "unacceptably high" cancer risk of approximately 2 in 1000. The U.S. EPA suggests that levels of 15 millirem per year effective dose or less protect health and are achievable. The 15 millirem per year effective dose equates to an increased cancer risk of 3 in 10,000.

    CDHS also recognizes in the new report that children can be more sensitive to health effects and that additional information may be needed to ensure that children's health is adequately protected.

    The purpose of the public participation process is to make better decisions by incorporating the comments of all affected stakeholders and to meet the needs of the decision-making body. CDHS has released the new report for public review and comment.

    Comments on the public participation process or any concerns or information relating to the historic distribution of sludge can be submitted to Tracy Barreau, CDHS - Environmental Health Investigation Branch, 1515 Clay Street, Suite 1700, Oakland, CA 94612.

    Comments received by January 15, 2003 will be in time to be fully considered in decisions on a structure for the process, although CDHS has said it will welcome the public's comments at any time.

    The report can be found in the Livermore library. It is also available from the Tri-Valley CAREs office and in PDF on the CDHS web site at Additionally, copies of the report can be obtained by calling CDHS at (510) 622-4500.

    The U.S. Bio-Warfare Building Boom

    By Marylia Kelley, Ann Seitz and Inga Olson
    From Tri-Valley CAREs' December 2002 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

    In recent months, more than a dozen new or expanded bio-warfare facilities have been proposed in nine U.S. states, including at Livermore Lab and U.C. Davis in California.

    Multiple federal agencies have been bitten by the bio-facility building bug, including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Dept. of Energy (DOE), the agency that designs and produces nuclear weapons.

    The reason? Most likely it's the $6 billion for biodefense that Congress hastily appropriated after last fall's anthrax mailings. That money, if ill-used in a multi-agency bio-lab construction frenzy, may serve to undermine rather than enhance our collective security.

    A new, national non-profit coalition - including Tri-Valley CAREs - has emerged to urge Congress and the public to reassess U.S. bio-warfare spending.

    The coalition is not opposed to all biodefense work, but is concerned that too much funding and too little planning will produce a dangerous proliferation of bio-warfare agents and the knowledge to use them.

    The coalition recently issued a statement warning that the current situation "poses dangers to local communities, to arms control and to U.S. national security." Coalition groups called on the government to freeze new bio-lab construction and to reorient U.S. biodefense spending toward "unclassified, public research to bolster local public health capabilities."

    Two of the new bio-warfare facilities are slated to be run by the DOE and housed within the nation's two principal nuclear weapons design laboratories - here at Livermore and at the Los Alamos Lab in New Mexico. The nuclear labs are seeking authority to experiment with some of the most hazardous biological agents on earth, including anthrax, botulism and bubonic plague. Additionally, the two weapons labs are planning to genetically modify bio-warfare agents.

    The planning document for Livermore Lab's bio-facility, for example, says it will "produce small amounts of biological material (enzymes, DNA, ribonucleic acid [RNA], etc.) using infections agents and genetically modified agents..." The bio-facility's inventory may total up to ten liters of various cultured microorganisms at a time.

    Livermore Lab already houses a bioreactor (fermenter) that could be modified in the future to produce agents on a large scale, if the policy were to change. Moreover, Livermore plans to aerosolize some bio-agents and "challenge" small animals with them.

    National coalition members expressed alarm at the proposed commingling of new bio-warfare agent capabilities with nuclear weapons activities. The initial steps for developing a military capability, (i.e., a bio-weapon) are the same as for developing a defensive capability (e.g., a bio-agent vaccine or detector), according to experts. The U.S. weapons labs are not open for international inspections, noted the coalition. Nor are they planning to be. At a minimum, this will cause other countries to question U.S. intentions. Conceivably, it could cripple international efforts to construct an effective nonproliferation regime for biological weapons.

    The Bush administration has already single-handedly quashed negotiations on verification and enforcement measures needed to detect and prevent violations to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The coalition believes that strengthening, not gutting, this international treaty will increase U.S. security.

    Our security can also be enhanced by developing a comprehensive, primary prevention approach toward all forms of infectious disease, say coalition members. This means "providing adequate resources to combat AIDS, antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, as well as the rise in diseases such as malaria predicted to increase from global climate change," explained Dr. Robert Gould, President of the SF Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility and a coalition member.

    The coalition is currently working on biodefense lab and program expansions proposed at Livermore Lab and U.C. Davis in CA, Los Alamos Lab in NM, Utah State Univ. and Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, Rocky Mountain Laboratory in MT, and the Univ. of Texas in Galveston. Other new and upgraded bio-facilities are proposed in San Antonio and Lubbock, TX, Manhattan, KS, Albuquerque, NM, Honolulu, HI, and Plum Island, NY. More are believed to be on the drawing board.

    In addition to Tri-Valley CAREs and SF Bay Area PSR, coalition member groups include the Citizens Education Project, UT, Coalition for a Safe Lab, MT, Los Alamos Study Group, NM, Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, The Sunshine Project, TX, and Western States Legal Foundation, CA.

    For a copy of the national statement, please call our office. For more information, or to get involved, join us on January 9. (Please see the enclosed flier or our Citizen's Alerts section for details.)

    Bad Bio Report Card

    By Marylia Kelley
    From Tri-Valley CAREs' December 2002 newsletter, Citizen's Watch

    The General Accounting Office (GAO), an investigative arm of Congress, found major problems in the federal government's program to monitor the transport of dangerous bio-agents in the U.S. and the laboratories that use them.

    Under a 1997 law, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is charged with regulating 42 particularly hazardous pathogens, called "select agents." The CDC's deficiencies in doing so pose an "urgent and potentially serious public health threat," according to GAO auditors.

    The GAO report was prompted by last fall's anthrax attacks and reads in part: "The sources from which terrorists can potentially obtain biological agents include public and private research laboratories located in the U.S., and there is concern that the anthrax used in these incidents may have been obtained from federal or other domestic laboratories." Implicit is the charge that a better tracking system would have made it easier to pinpoint the source of the mailed anthrax.

    The GAO found that the CDC was not conducting adequate inspections of bio-labs using select agents (including anthrax, plague and other agents planned for use at Livermore). Further, CDC was failing to monitor transfers between bio-facilities -- and its database was found by GAO to include inaccurate and inconsistent data. The federal auditors also cited problems with CDC overseeing its own bio-labs.

    The CDC responded to the Nov. 22 report by promising to reform its program. CDC spokesperson David Daigle told the Associated Press that his agency had only 13 employees conducting bio-lab inspections and admitted that it was not enough to do the job. The CDC plans to augment the workforce with contractors, he said.

    The GAO report noted that CDC had received increasing funds to implement the program -- from $1 million in 1997 to $3.6 million for an expanded program in 2002.

    Citizen's Alerts - please see the Calendar section of our website for the latest

    Peace Giving

    War fervor grips your President. A new "Homeland Security" state threatens your basic democracy. What can you do?

    The answer: Take positive action together with your friends and colleagues in Tri-Valley CAREs.

    Inside this newsletter, you will find opportunities to learn, speak out, mobilize and become an effective advocate for peace, justice and the environment.

    And, in these dark days, we ask you to take another positive action -- to contribute financially to Tri-Valley CAREs.

    We are well recognized for our leadership -- monitoring the DOE nuclear weapons complex, organizing in the community, testifying at hearings and speaking truth to power in Washington, D.C. and at the gates of Livermore Lab.

    We are confident you recognize the importance of Tri-Valley CAREs' work.

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