EPA Sets Stage For Massive Cleanup Of Homes On Radioactive Mine Sites

Superfund Report – 02/07/2011
EPA Sets Stage For Massive Cleanup Of Homes On Radioactive Mine Sites
Posted: February 4, 2011
EPA has begun aerial surveys of former phosphate mines in central Florida where it fears tens of thousands people may be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation – a key step that could put the agency on the path toward conducting a potentially precedent-setting cleanup of the area.
The surveys – which have been on hold for years as EPA disputed cleanup standards with state and industry officials – could also lay the groundwork for citizen lawsuits that could potentially force mining companies to clean up the area if the agency does not act on its own, a lawyer following the issue says.
At issue are approximately 10 square miles of former phosphate mining lands near Lakeland, FL, where EPA has taken no cleanup action despite having concerns since the late 1970s that the indoor air of homes built on the lands is contaminated with cancer-causing levels of radiation. A fight between EPA, state and industry officials over the appropriate cleanup standard for the sites, along with the potentially overwhelming cost of conducting such a massive cleanup – as much as $11 billion by some estimates – have been among the reasons for the delay (Superfund Report, Sept. 3).
EPA has long considered aerial surveys to be the next step to addressing its concerns about residential exposure because they would enable the agency to better characterize how much of the land in question is contaminated and to what extent. State and federal officials drafted documents in preparation for such surveys in 2006, but the work was delayed as a result of the dispute over cleanup standards, a former EPA official previously told Inside EPA.
According to documents Inside EPA recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), planning to conduct an aerial survey of a limited number of sites was again underway in 2008, but the plans were never executed. But a January 2010 Inside EPA article that for the first time made EPA’s concerns about the area public “prompted renewed interest in the sites,” according to a February 2010 request from EPA Region IV staff to have a meeting about the issue with then-Acting Regional Administrator Stan Meiburg. Among the interest the article generated were requests from officials at EPA headquarters and Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) – then chairman of the House Environment Subcommittee – for briefings on the issue from the Region IV staff.
Following these requests, internal discussions regarding aerial surveys resumed, the FOIA documents show, and according to a source with direct knowledge of the surveys, federal contractors completed some survey work on behalf of EPA in January 2011. The source declined to discuss the survey results, however, and it is unclear exactly what EPA’s next steps will be.
EPA officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Surveying the area, however, is an important step that could provide EPA with key information that the agency would need in order to conduct a cleanup of the site, the lawyer following the issue says. Without comprehensive survey data, EPA has been unable to determine exactly how bad the problem is, how widespread it is, and exactly how many homes might have to be cleaned up, the lawyer notes.
If EPA does not initiate a cleanup, the data it collects in such surveys could be be used by residents to launch lawsuits against the companies that mined the area, the lawyer says. If successful, such suits could force the companies to conduct cleanup work on their own or to pay damages to the affected residents, the lawyer adds.
One case in which two central Florida residents sought to hold phosphate mining companies liable for radioactive contamination on their property recently settled for an undisclosed amount, although the case dealt primarily with drinking water contamination rather than indoor air contamination.
In the suit, which had been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Charlie and Kimberly Gates alleged the Mosaic Company, W.R. Grace & Co., Seminole Fertilizer Corporation and Cargill Fertilizer Inc. were responsible for polluting their private drinking water well at their former home in Bartow, FL, and ultimately causing Charlie Gates to contract leukemia. Relevant documents are available on InsideEPA.com.
If EPA does pursue cleanup of the area, the cleanup standards it chooses could set a precedent for future phosphate mine cleanups in Florida and other states, and for sites contaminated with radioactive materials generally. The traditional EPA cleanup standard under Superfund dictates that concentrations of radium-226 – the radioactive substance left behind on former phosphate mine lands – should not exceed 5 picocuries per gram (pCi/g) of soil. But state and industry officials consider the 5 pCi/g standard “overly conservative” and argue no cleanup is necessary unless people are receiving a dose of more than 500 millirems of radiation per year (mrem/year).
If EPA were to accept 500 mrem as a protective standard for the Florida sites, it would set a negative and far-reaching precedent for future radioactive cleanups around the country, environmentalists have said. “EPA has for years said 100 millirem is way outside the [Superfund] risk range,” one activist said previously. “This would be EPA living in a different universe.”
Industry has in the past expressed its contrary view in statements to Inside EPA and closed-door meetings with EPA officials, and according to the recent FOIA documents, such meetings resumed during the past year. One such meeting took place on April 15, 2010, the documents show. According to a letter Mosaic officials sent to EPA in advance of the meeting, the company hoped “to gain an understanding of EPA’s current viewpoint on the issue of radiation on mined lands and whether [the agency’s] focus is on public health or something else.”
Mosaic also sought “to engage in a discussion of what EPA believes is the likely path to set standards, gather data, manage risks, and communicate regarding the radiation issue,” the letter says. “Mosaic, as the largest phosphate mining company in Florida, is interested in what actions the industry can take to engage proactively with EPA, other state and federal agencies, and the residents of Florida toward appropriate next steps.”
The FOIA documents also show that some Region IV officials had concerns about Mosaic’s plans to build a resort on some former phosphate mines near Fort Meade, FL, and suggested to their colleagues that the area be checked out before construction begins.
A spokesman for Mosaic says the April meeting featured “the same topic of discussion” as prior meetings on the issue and that there has “been very little conversation beyond the discussion of an appropriate standard.” – Douglas P. Guarino
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