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Senators want to investigate nuke-waste regulators

Several senators are asking for an investigation by the state Auditor into the Department of Health Services and its Radiological Health Branch, which regulates the handling of low-level radioactive waste.

Twelve senators, including Sheila Kuehl, D- Santa Monica, and Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, sent a letter earlier this month to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee expressing their concern that DHS may be “engaged in an unauthorized de facto deregulation of the handling and disposal of LLRW.”

The radioactive materials are used in hospitals and industrial settings, and carry small but potentially dangerous levels of radioactivity.

The audit request seeks to answer whether the Department of Health Services has ignored an executive order by then Governor Gray Davis, and an order from a Sacramento Superior Court judge to conduct a full environmental review and make new rules establishing clean-up standards for sites contaminated with LLRW.

The audit request also asks whether the DHS is allowing radioactive waste to go to sites in California that are not licensed to receive such materials, and whether the DHS is exploiting the so-called “Tennessee Loophole” and allowing radioactive materials to be disposed of in municipal landfills in that state, where state rules are less stringent.

“There has been a lot of secrecy around the storage and disposal of low-level radioactive waste,” Kuehl told Capitol Weekly.

For example, the senators’ letter outlines the case of an Irvine company called ICN Radiopharmaceutical Inc., which watchdog groups believe got around state rules against putting nuclear materials in landfills by shipping the contaminated waste to Tennessee–with DHS’ blessing.

“My experience with the Radiological health branch over time is that they have become–I won’t say captured–but somewhat sympathetic to the industry,” Kuehl explained. “We just need a lot more information. We need to know why they may have been helping the industry skirt some of the regulations.”

In 2001, the department attempted to create new rules that would have allowed materials below 25 millirem of radioactivity to be disposed of anywhere, including being dumped in municipal landfills or sent to recycling centers.

In 2002, environmental groups, including the Southern California based Committee to Bridge the Gap, successfully sued in Sacramento County Superior Court, which ordered DHS to set aside its rule and conduct an environmental-review process under the California Environmental Quality Act.

At the same time, Senator Gloria Romero introduced legislation that would have banned even slightly radioactive materials being landfilled. But Davis vetoed the measure and followed up with Executive Order D-62-02, placing a temporary moratorium on land-filling radioactive waste, and directing the department to “adopt regulations establishing dose standards for the decommissioning of radioactive materials by its licensees.”

Five years later, and DHS has not yet completed the environmental review ordered by the courts and by governor Davis five (see “Just don’t do it,” Capitol Weekly, April 26, 2007). In fact, the agency has so far chosen to avoid the directions of the executive order altogether.

“DHS is not doing an EIR at this time and has not proposed regulations to readopt a radiological criteria for license termination,” explained DHS spokesperson Lea Brooks.

The same environmental groups which sued DHS back in 2002 also say they have found evidence that DHS/RHB was allowing nuclear waste to the leave the state to unregulated facilities.

“It’s my hope that this audit will lead to a wholesale reform of this rogue branch,” said Bill Magavern with the Sierra Club, who has been following the issue for years.

But the audit request is complicated by the long absence of JLAC chairwoman, Assembly member Nell Soto, D- Ontario. Soto has been out for months recovering from a tough bout of pneumonia. And the committee has moved at a slower than normal pace. The committee has met only once this session, in April, when Assembly John Laird was drafted to be the guest chairman.

Soto’s chief of staff, Paul Van Dyke, said he expects his boss to return to work in mid-June. That’s about the time that staff at JLAC expect the committee to hold its next hearing.

Officials at DHS aren’t saying much about the possible audit. “We have not seen the letter and do not know of the details of the request,” said Brooks.

Contact Cosmo Garvin at
cosmo.garvin@capitolweekly.net

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