The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed rule changes that would permit drinking water to become hundreds of thousands of times more radioactive than currently allowed. The rule would permit water so radioactive that it would expose those drinking it to the equivalent of 250 chest X-rays per year.
Environmental groups immediately condemned the proposal.
“Clean water is essential for health,” said Catherine Thomasson, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Just like lead, radiation when ingested in small amounts is very hazardous to our health. It is inconceivable that EPA could now quietly propose allowing enormous increases in radioactive contamination with no action to protect the public, even if concentrations are a thousand times higher than under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
Proposal “unprecedented, shocking”
The proposed Protective Action Guidelines apply to any situation in which
radioactive materials contaminate a drinking water supply. This would include not just a nuclear accident (like the 2011 meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima plant) or attack (including a “dirty bomb”), but also spills of radioactive material such as from fracking wastewater or radiopharmaceutical supplies.
The new guidelines would permit drinking water to be hundreds of thousands of times more radioactive than the current rules, by dramatically increasing the allowed amounts of every individual radioactive isotope. For example, the current rules permit iodine-131 at levels of 3 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), but the new rules would raise that to 10,350 pCi/L — more than 3,000 times higher! Similarly, permitted levels of strontium-90 would be raised from 8 pCi/L to 7,400 pCi/L.
The EPA doesn’t even have the excuse of the exposure being short-term. The guidelines are meant to regulate radioactivity in water over the long-term, for as many as several years after a radioactive release has been stabilized.
The agency tried to raise the permitted radioactivity levels in drinking water once before, during the Bush Administration, but that proposal was discarded in the early days of the Obama Administration. Now shockingly, that same administration has put forward a proposal even worse than the one it originally tossed out.
“These levels are even higher than those proposed by the Bush Administration—really unprecedented and shocking,” said Diane D’Arrigo of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.
There is no safe level of radiation exposure.
Energy industry giveaway
Although it is impossible to directly measure doses of radiation (rems), these doses can be estimated based on radionuclide levels and other factors. Based on these calculations, the new rules would permit people to be exposed to 500 millirems per year — equivalent to 250 chest X-rays, and 125 times higher than the current level permitted under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Internal EPA documents obtained from Freedom of Information requests admit that the new proposed concentrations would exceed limits set by the Safe Drinking Water Act “by a factor of 100, 1000 and in two instances, 7 million.” The agency’s own analysis found that for one of the radionuclides, “drinking a very small glass of water of approximately 4 ounces … would result in an exposure that corresponds to a lifetime of drinking … water … at the [current maximum] level.”
Shockingly, this proposal came shortly after the EPA raised its estimates of the risks of radiation exposure.
Why would the agency charged with protecting health and the environment seek to gut laws meant to keep radioactive material out of drinking water?
“These proposed changes are a particularly egregious gift to the energy industry, which would essentially be given a free pass whenever nuclear or fracking waste enters our water supply,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch and author of the book Frackopoly.
“The EPA under President Obama has also whitewashed the impact of fracking on drinking water. This is more of the same when it comes to his EPA’s pro-industry, hands-off regulation of toxic practices that can harm public health.”
Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is an oil and gas mining technique that creates millions of gallons of radioactive wastewater for every well drilled.