EPA Resists Call To Halt Radiation Surveys

The Inside Story – 

EPA Resists Call To Halt Radiation Surveys

Posted: September 9, 2011

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is resisting GOP demands that the agency commit to halt aerial surveys that could inform a potentially precedent-setting cleanup of an area in central Florida where the agency fears that tens of thousands of people living on former phosphate mines are being exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

An agency spokeswoman says that during a Sept. 7 meeting, Jackson told GOP critics that the agency has “no current plans” to conduct such surveys, but stopped short of agreeing to the lawmakers’ call to permanently halt the flyovers.

At issue are approximately 10 square miles of contaminated land near Lakeland, FL, where EPA has taken no cleanup action despite having had the concerns since the late 1970s. To address the concerns, which were first made public by an award-winning series of Inside EPA articles in 2010, the agency has so far conducted only one preliminary aerial radiation survey near the area in question.

But EPA’s survey has prompted opposition from GOP lawmakers representing the area, including Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL), who is planning to push an amendment to EPA’s upcoming appropriations bill blocking further EPA survey work. Ross, together with other GOP lawmakers, sent a letter to Jackson earlier this year that criticized the agency for having recently conducted the preliminary survey and demanded that the agency conduct no further flyovers, saying they could hurt Florida’s economy. The lawmakers also called EPA’s long-held Superfund cleanup standards “arbitrary.”

In a Sept. 7 press release, Ross claimed that he had met with Jackson in his Washington, DC office and had won a commitment from the Administrator “to conduct no future radiation flyovers.” In the press release, Ross called the alleged commitment from Jackson “a giant step in the right direction,” because further surveys would “impact every Floridian in thousands of dollars a year in new costs and potentially devastating effects on an already depressed housing market.”

During the meeting with Jackson, Ross said he “made clear that decades of study, from industry to University, show that radiation levels at mining sites in central Florida contain less radiation than living in the suburbs of Denver, and that any radiation monitoring must be done with agreed upon benchmarks based on accepted scientific standards.”

But Ross’s press release “is misleading,” an agency spokeswoman says in a statement to Inside EPA. “Administrator Jackson did not commit to no flyovers – she simply stated at this time there are no plans to do any,” the EPA spokeswoman says.

The EPA spokeswoman also defended the use of aerial surveys, calling them “a common sense, low-cost way of detecting whether there is radiation in the soil, radiation that could harm people in their communities.” The spokeswoman says that “EPA undertakes a strict scientific and public process to determine what levels of radiation are unsafe” and that the agency “has a duty to gather information to ensure public health and the environment are protected.”

EPA is “committed to continuing to work with States to listen and address any issues of concerns,” the spokeswoman says.

Reaching a consensus with state officials regarding the Florida phosphate issue could prove difficult, however. The desire of EPA officials to use their Superfund standards as the basis for any cleanups in the area has long been a source of contention between EPA, Florida and phosphate mining industry officials, and the disagreement has prompted concerns amongst environmentalists who fear the precedent that could be set if EPA abandons its long-held standards.

In addition, Ross is preparing to insert his amendment blocking any additional survey work in the fiscal year 2012 budget bill when it is recalled to the House floor. The amendment would block surveys “of any facility in the State of Florida in Polk county or Hillsborough county that is listed in” EPA’s Superfund database, known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System (CERCLIS).

But Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), who has raised concerns about the Florida phosphate issue in the past, may oppose the amendment. A Capitol Hill source said recently that Markey continues to track the issue and may speak in opposition to the Ross amendment when it comes up on the House floor.

In addition, Florida environmentalists are urging Jackson to reject the demands of Ross and the other Florida Republicans, which include Reps. Gus Bilirakis, Vern Buchanan, Richard Nugent and Thomas Rooney. In a July 20 letter, the activists say they “strongly support a fully scientific review of the impacts of phosphate mining, including the aerial radiation surveys which are long overdue.”

A Ross spokesman could not be reached for comment.

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Douglas P. Guarino
Associate Editor
Inside Washington Publishers
(Inside EPA's Superfund Report)
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Arlington, VA 22202
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