News Feature | November 28, 2016

Top EPA Official Defends Plan For Nuclear Contamination

Dominique 'Peak' Johnson

By Peak Johnson

U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy addressed members of the National Press Club in Washington D.C. on November 21 in regards to the agency’s attempt at protecting American citizens from nuclear contamination.

In June the agency proposed new guidelines for restricting drinking water after a nuclear incident, partially a response to the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.

In September, the EPA proposed a rule that could allow the public to temporarily drink water containing radioactive contamination in the case of a nuclear emergency and it isn’t sitting well with some.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the EPA “thinks it would be acceptable for the public to temporarily drink water containing radioactive contamination at up to thousands of times normal federal safety limits.”

Since 2009, the EPA has been working on drinking water guidelines as part of a broader set of recommendations in case radioactive material is ever discharged into the environment.

ThinkProgess reported that “during a radiological emergency, radioactive material could be released into the rivers, lakes, and streams used by public water suppliers.” What the EPA is proposing is a “non-regulatory” guidance that authorities can use “to protect residents from experiencing the harmful effects from radiation in drinking water following an emergency.”

The agency’s Draft Protective Action Guide (PAG) advises officials on how to react to “a nuclear meltdown or a dirty bomb, a weapon that combines conventional explosives such as dynamite with radioactive material.”

McCarthy’s appearance at the National Press Club was, according to NBC Bay Area, the first publicly-made comments about questions surrounding the new proposal of allowing higher levels of radiation in drinking water.

McCarthy told members “that there are greater concerns over radiation today,” adding, “We have more at issue right now in terms of radiation, we have the little bombs that can happen.”

The 2009 PAG lists 107 radioactive materials, while the most current lists only three. For each material, the guide lists a maximum level. Upon reaching that level, government agencies or rescue crews are responsible for providing bottled water or evacuating residents.

NBC reported that the overall worry is stemming from radioactive materials that are “decaying.” This means that the materials are “emitting particles, gamma rays or electrons.” The resulting radiation can change the chemical balance of cells or change DNA, that can lead to a host of health concerns that include “birth defects, cancer, and in large enough doses — death.”

Before the EPA released its new document, agencies relied on the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 for what was considered to be acceptable radiation levels in drinking water after emergencies.

Opponents of the proposal, including the New York attorney general and environmental groups, stated in September that the initiative represented a “drastic departure from normal protection limits and could endanger people’s health,” per The Wall Street Journal.

“The upshot really is that the [nuclear] industry really wants to be able to release more radioactivity and not be responsible for it,” Diane D’Arrigo, a project director at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, told ThinkProgress. “This is really a big loss.”

McCarthy insured those in attendance that the radioactivity should not affect the water being drunk every day.

“I don’t want anyone to think that we are changing our standards for drinking water, that is not the case,” McCarthy said. “What we are trying to do is figure out how to actually start transitioning from a case where everybody is in their house and hunkered down, and can’t drink drinking water to being able to understand what exposures — in a temporary way — would allow life to continue.”

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Source Water Contamination Solutions Center.