Environmental groups say the Department of Health Services has ignored an executive order from then-Governor Gray Davis, requiring the agency to set new standards for the handling of so-called “low-level radioactive waste.” They are calling on the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to investigate DHS’ handling of nuclear garbage.
The rules–or lack of rules–concern radioactive materials used in hospitals and industrial settings that are regulated by the DHS’ Radiological Health Branch.
In 2001, the department attempted to create new rules that would tighten the clean up standard for facilities that contained or used materials emitting very low levels of radiation. But the new rules also would have allowed materials below a certain level of radioactivity to be disposed of anywhere, including being dumped in municipal landfills or sent to recycling centers.
The rules would have allowed material registering as high as 25 millirem to be disposed of this way. A chest x-ray produces up to 15 millirem. Many nuclear experts say that the waste in question poses no risk to human health, because the levels of radioactivity are often barely above that of background radiation people are exposed to every day. Critics contend that background radiation does contribute to cancer in human beings, and that it is irresponsible to allow any additional radioactivity into the environment.
Environmentalists and some lawmakers nearly went nuclear themselves when DHS officials explained that the new rule was a stricter standard because much “hotter” radioactive waste had been allowed into landfills and other unlicensed facilities for years.
“I can’t throw a battery in a landfill,” Senator Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, said at the time. “How can I explain to California families that it’s OK to dump radioactive waste in their backyard?” Romero’s Senate district includes Puente Hills, the nation’s largest landfill.
In 2002, she penned SB 1970, which would have banned even slightly radioactive materials being landfilled. But Governor Davis vetoed SB 1970, saying the prohibition would be “premature until the Department assesses the public health and environmental safety risks.”
“It was a huge disappointment,” Romero told Capitol Weekly.
But Davis followed up on his veto with Executive Order D-62-02, placing a temporary moratorium on landfilling radioactive waste, and directing the department to “adopt regulations establishing dose standards for the decommissioning of radioactive materials by its licensees.”
At about the same time, environmental groups, including the Southern California based Committee to Bridge the Gap, successfully sued in Sacramento County Superior Court to stop the DHS rule. The Superior Court judge ordered DHS to set aside its rule and not to adopt new rules until it had conducted an environmental-review process under the California Environmental Quality Act.
“Four and a half years later, I haven’t heard a word from DHS. There just been a long silence,” said Sierra Club lobbyist Bill Magavern.
“The environmental-impact assessment has not been completed,” replied Leah Brooks, spokesperson with the Department of Health Services. At press time, Brooks said she didn’t know if the environmental process had been initiated or when it would be completed.
“[DHS is] ordered to do things and they just don’t do it,” said Daniel Hirsch, director of the Committee to Bridge the Gap. “The Legislature doesn’t matter. Executive orders don’t matter.”
The year 2002 was a big year for nuclear waste in California. That same year, Senator Sheila Kuehl, D- Santa Monica, authored legislation, SB 1444, which would have set a much stricter standard for the cleanup of sites that contained nuclear materials. That bill died in committee.
She was more successful with SB 2065, which Davis signed into law in fall of 2002. She directed the DHS to create a registry of nuclear materials to inventory and monitor the use of low-level radioactive materials at labs and other facilities throughout the state.
“I really felt we needed to know how much of this stuff is out there, and where it is,” Kuehl explained.
“The low-level radioactive-waste tracking system is currently being implemented,” is how Leah Brooks described the DHS efforts to comply with SB 2065.
But Kuehl laughed when asked about that implementation. She said DHS opposed SB 2065 until the very end, and has taken years to actually put the law in practice.
“They said for years, ‘We don’t have any money,’ when there really was money. They made a lot of excuses about it,” Kuehl said. She said that in the last year, DHS has made better progress, but that, “As far as I know, they still haven’t completed it.”
Indeed, the Department of Health Services just posted new information about the program on its Web site on April 20. And Brooks said that notices to generators of low-level radioactive waste about the law would be mailed in the very near future.
Committee to Bridge the Gap and the Sierra Club have asked the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to conduct an audit of the DHS. Specifically, the letter asks the JLAC to look in whether the DHS has complied with the executive order, and whether the DHS is allowing decommissioned nuclear material to be shipped to out-of-state facilities, including general landfills, where rules are less stringent.
But the JLAC won’t launch an audit without getting a request from a legislator. Senator Kuehl is considering supporting the audit request. Senator Romero is also contemplating making that call. “Now, we’re back at square one,” Romero told Capitol Weekly. “It’s a lesson for all us legislators, that you can’t just walk away from a problem and assume it’s going to be taken care of.”
Romero, who was frustrated by Davis in her efforts to regulate radioactive waste, wonders if the Schwarzenegger administration will be more amenable. “Davis just wanted this to go away. But now that we have this newly crowned ‘green governor,’ I would encourage him to look into this, too.”