Category Archives: public health

Breathing in Plutonium Dust: Hanford

Testing a sheep's thyroid for radiation. Image from wikipedia

The Energy Department project to tear down the Plutonium Finish Plant at the Hanford Site was halted in mid-December 2017 after radioactive dust was discovered far off the plant site. T As crews demolished a shuttered nuclear weapons plant during 2017 in central Washington, specks of plutonium were swept up in high gusts and blown miles across a desert plateau above the Columbia River.  The releases at the Department of Energy cleanup site spewed unknown amounts of plutonium dust into the environment, coated private automobiles with the toxic heavy metal and dispensed lifetime internal radioactive doses to 42 work

The contamination events went on for nearly 12 months, getting progressively worse before the project was halted in mid-December. Now, state health and environmental regulators, Energy Department officials and federal safety investigators are trying to figure out what went wrong and who is responsible.

The events at the Hanford Site, near the Tri-Cities area of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, vividly demonstrate the consequences when a radioactive cleanup project spirals out of control.

The mishap occurred at one of the nation’s most radioactively contaminated buildings, known as the Plutonium Finishing Plant. The factory, which opened in 1949 a few miles from the Columbia River, supplied plutonium for thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons before it was shut down in 1989.
The exposures from the plutonium releases in 2017 were minuscule bestimated to be a small fraction of the background radiation that every human gets from nature. But unlike cosmic radiation or radon gas, plutonium can lodge itself inside the body and deliver tissue damaging alpha particles over a lifetime…. As workers removed equipment to prepare for walls to be torn down, air monitoring alarms sounded almost every day, he said. Workers were subjected to repeated nasal smears to determine if they had breathed plutonium dust, he said….Seven employee automobiles were contaminated at the plant site, according to a Jan. 9, 2018 letter from the state Department of Ecology to Doug Shoop, the federal site chief at Hanford… The demolition, costing $57 million, was being conducted by one of the nation’s largest engineering firms, CH2M, a unit of Texas-based Jacobs Engineering. CH2M is now under federal investigation for the releases, according to a letter sent by the Energy Department’s enforcement office in late March 2018…

In March 2018, the company released a preliminary analysis [pdf] of the contamination and blamed it on a half dozen factors, including a “fixative” that was supposed to bind the dust but was too diluted to work properly and a decision to accelerate demolition when the contamination seemed to be stable.  The Energy Department plan for the demolition originally required the contractor to remove debris as it accumulated. But in January 2017, just before the first releases, officials authorized CH2M to allow the debris to pile up, according to a monthly site report by an inspector for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent agency.  In fact, workers at the plant said the demolition site was ringed by 8-foot-tall piles of radioactive debris with little to prevent dust from blowing off

The problems at the Plutonium Finishing Plant were not an isolated event at Hanford, which has struggled with its cleanup for more than a decade.
Work was stopped five years ago on key parts of a $16.8-billion waste treatment plant that is supposed to turn 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge into glass. Technical deficiencies in its design are still being studied, while delays mount. Several years ago, the Energy Department pushed back the full startup by 17 years to 2039, though it hopes to begin treating some less radioactive waste by 2022….In 2017, a tunnel that stored railroad cars full of contaminated equipment collapsed. The Energy Department pumped the 358-foot long tunnel full of a concrete mixture. A decision is pending about what to do with a second storage tunnel 1,688 feet long.

The state attorney general, along with Hanford Challenge and a union, is suing the Energy Department for venting noxious gases from underground waste tanks over recent years, sickening workers.

Smith, the Ecology manager, said a lot of cleanup progress has been made at Hanford. Hundreds of buildings have been torn down. Much of the soil along the banks of the Columbia River has been cleaned up enough for any future use. And the site’s nine nuclear reactors have been put in stable condition…

One of those facilities, known as 324 Building,[Chemical Materials Engineering Laboratory] was used to extract plutonium from spent fuel, said Robert Alvarez, a former assistant secretary of Energy and a longtime critic of the cleanup. The facility has civilian waste from Germany, sent as part of a research project, as well as large amounts of radioactive waste that was placed in unlined burial pits, he said. Records of what lies in the pits were destroyed in 1988, he said.

Excerpts from RALPH VARTABEDIAN, Contamination from a nuclear cleanup forced a shutdown. Investigators want to know who is responsible, LA Times, Apr. 16, 2018

Well blowouts and Pipeline breakdowns: Who Profits?

Deepwater Horizon rig, April 21, 2010 image from wikipedia

The global oil spill management market size is projected to grow beyond USD 125.62 billion by 2024. Growing incidents of oil spilling in the past along with severe safety and environmental policies are likely to propel the market over the forecast phase (2016-2024). Also, escalating pipeline and seaborne shipping of crude oil and chemicals could positively impact the market further.  The market is fragmented by technologies, techniques, applications, and regions. Technologies are Pre-oil spill and Post-oil spill. Pre-oil spill segment is divided into double-hull, pipeline, leak detection, blow-out preventers, and others. Double-hulling was the dominant segment in 2015 with highest shares.

Marine trade registers for a majority of petroleum products and natural gas transportation. Mounting demand for crude and petroleum products oil in Europe and Asia Pacific will boost the maritime trade growth further. Post-oil spill segments are mechanical, chemical, biological, and physical. Chemical and mechanical containment and recovery are the techniques used in the industry….In 2015, onshore post-oil spill sector was valued close to 60% of the total market demand. Regions such as Norway, U.S, Mexico, Canada, U.S., China, and Nigeria have observed well blowouts and occurrences of pipeline breakdowns. This could be accredited to huge market diffusion in past

Main regions in the market encompass North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa (MEA), and Central & South America. North America was the leading market for pre-oil spill management. It was estimated at 40.1% of total demand in 2015. This region will potentially face lucrative demand due to production activities and increasing oil & gas discovery. Pre-oil spill management shares in Asia Pacific will gain over USD 21,540 million by 2024…  Top companies in the global oil spill management market include OMI Environmental Solutions, Skim Oil Inc., American Green Ventures Inc., and Spill Response Services.

Excerpts from Global Oil Spill Management Market Size is Projected to Grow Beyond USD 125.62 Billion by 2024, Hexa Research Press Release, Mar. 17, 2018

Islands of Paradise, Sewage and Garbage

Cesspools—holes in the ground where untreated human waste is deposited—have become a crisis in Hawaii, threatening the state’s drinking water, its coral reefs and the famous beaches that are the lifeblood of its tourist economy.  Sewage from cesspools is seeping into some of Hawaii’s ocean waters, where it has been blamed for infections suffered by surfers and snorkelers. It is also entering the drinking water in part of the state, pushing nitrate levels close to the legal limit.

Hawaii has 88,000 cesspools across its eight major islands, more than any other state. Collectively, they deposit 53 million gallons of raw sewage into the ground every day, according to the state health department. More than 90% of the state’s drinking water comes from groundwater wells…

Replacing all of the state’s cesspools with alternate sewage systems would cost at least $1.75 billion, according to the health department…At one groundwater well, nitrate levels are already at 8.7 milligrams a liter; the legal limit is 10, and the Department of Health estimated that some parts of the aquifer are already over that limit. Environmentalists say they are worried about the potential effect of the water on infants, who can be killed by high levels on nitrates, which are chemicals found in fertilizer and sewage.

Many bathrooms in homes outside Honolulu still pump sewage into nearby holes in the ground.  Yet, some residents resist plans to replace cesspools, worried about expense. In January 2018, Upcountry Maui residents overwhelmed a Department of Public Health meeting, complaining about potential costs.

Excerpt from Hawaii’s Big Headache: Cesspools, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 12, 2018

The Maritime Environment Protection Authority’s (MEPA) of Sri Lanka spent millions of rupees on coastal cleanups last year — a reflection of “spending public money for public waste,” as the MEPA’s General Manager and CEO, Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara, puts it.

A large proportion of the problem is attributable to inland waste, he notes. “It is not merely what is dumped directly on the beaches, but all that flows through canals and rivers,” he says, pointing out that other triggers, including the fisheries and the tourism sector, are only secondary to inland waste which ends up on the coast. Added to the burden is the garbage which flows from India, Indonesia and Thailand, he says. The MEPA’s role in controlling pollution covers Sri Lanka’s 1640 km coastal belt and extends up to 200 nautical miles to the deep sea, the area, which, according to Dr. Pradeep Kumara, is eight times the size of Sri Lanka’s land area.

The garbage dumped in the coastal vegetation is contributing to the dengue problem…especially the fishing craft, both in use and abandoned, in which water is stagnated.”   Mitigating inland pollution is seen by MEPA authorities as the first step in realising cleaner beaches. They moot a site-specific garbage disposal system, as opposed to a ‘blanket system’. “What works for Colombo will not work for other areas,” says Dr. Pradeep Kumara.

Excerpt Sea of trash: Inland and overseas garbage washes up on Lanka’s beaches, Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), Feb. 11, 2018

How to Relocate an Open Wound: Rubbish Dumps

Couple married at waste dump. Image from BBC

One of the biggest rubbish dumps in South America was closed in January 2018 in Brazil after almost 60 years.The Estructural dump in the country’s capital, Brasilia, had processed more than 1,000 tonnes of rubbish every day. But its closure is likely to have an impact on a nearby favela as many of the residents rely on scavenging.  The regional governor, Rodrigo Rollemberg, says the rubbish scavengers will be paid to work in a recycling centre in cleaner conditions.

“We cannot live with this open wound in the midst of our nation’s capital, a dump where human beings put their lives at risk seeking a livelihood in an undignified way,” he said at the opening of the new landfill which is further out from the city centre.  “Rollemberg hasn’t offered us a real alternative. We cannot survive on that pay,” Valdir Dutra, who has scavenged for 16 years, told Reuters news agency.

Excerpt from Huge Brazil rubbish dump closes after six decades, Reuters, Jan. 20, 2018

The Right to Drinkable Water and Uranium Mining in the USA

image from http://postcardy.blogspot.com/2015/02/map-southern-utah-and-northern-arizona.html

[T]he uranium mining industry in the United States is renewing a push into the areas adjacent to Navajo Nation, Utah: the Grand Canyon watershed to the west, where a new uranium mine is preparing to open, and the Bears Ears National Monument to the north.

The Trump administration is set to shrink Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent in February 2018, potentially opening more than a million acres to mining, drilling and other industrial activity….[T]here were more than 300 uranium mining claims inside the monument, according to data from Utah’s Bureau of Land Management (B.L.M.) office that was reviewed by The New York Times.  The vast majority of those claims fall neatly outside the new boundaries of Bears Ears set by the [Trump] administration. And an examination of local B.L.M. records, including those not yet entered into the agency’s land and mineral use authorizations database, shows that about a third of the claims are linked to Energy Fuels, a Canadian uranium producer. Energy Fuels also owns the Grand Canyon mine, where groundwater has already flooded the main shaft.

Energy Fuels, together with other mining groups, lobbied extensively for a reduction of Bears Ears, preparing maps that marked the areas it wanted removed from the monument and distributing them during a visit to the monument by Mr. Zinke, Energy Secretary,  in May 2017.

The Uranium Producers of America, an industry group, is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw regulations proposed by the Obama administration to strengthen groundwater protections at uranium mines. Mining groups have also waged a six-year legal battle against a moratorium on new uranium mining on more than a million acres of land adjacent to the Grand Canyon…

Supporters of the mining say that a revival of domestic uranium production, which has declined by 90 percent since 1980 amid slumping prices and foreign competition, will make the United States a larger player in the global uranium market.  It would expand the country’s energy independence, they say, and give a lift to nuclear power, still a pillar of carbon-free power generation. Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia, Russia and a few other countries now supply most of America’s nuclear fuel.

The dwindling domestic market was thrust into the spotlight by the contentious 2010 decision under the Obama administrationthat allowed Russia’s nuclear agency to buy Uranium One, a company that has amassed production facilities in the United States. The Justice Department is examining allegations that donations to the Clinton Foundation were tied to that decision.

“If we consider nuclear a clean energy, if people are serious about that, domestic uranium has to be in the equation,” said Jon J. Indall, a lawyer for Uranium Producers of America. “But the proposed regulations would have had a devastating impact on our industry.” “Countries like Kazakhstan, they’re not under the same environmental standards. We want a level playing field.”…

In Sanders, Arizona, hundreds of people were exposed to potentially dangerous levels of uranium in their drinking water for years, until testing by a doctoral researcher at Northern Arizona University named Tommy Rock exposed the contamination.  “I was shocked,” Mr. Rock said. “I wasn’t expecting that reading at all.”

Mr. Rock and other scientists say they suspect a link to the 1979 breach of a wastewater pond at a uranium mill in Church Rock, N.M., now a Superfund site. That accident is considered the single largest release of radioactive material in American history, surpassing the crisis at Three Mile Island.

It wasn’t until 2003, however, that testing by state regulators picked up uranium levels in Sanders’s tap water. Still, the community was not told. Erin Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said the department had urged the now-defunct local water company for years to address the contamination, but it had been up to that company to notify its customers….The town’s school district, whose wells were also contaminated with uranium, received little state or federal assistance. It shut off its water fountains and handed out bottled water to its 800 elementary and middle-school students.  “I still don’t trust the water,” said Shanon Sangster, who still sends her 10-year-old daughter, Shania, to school with bottled water. “It’s like we are all scarred by it, by the uranium.”

Excerpts from HIROKO TABUCHIJAN,  Uranium Miners Pushed Hard for a Comeback. They Got Their Wish,  NY Times, Jan. 13, 2018

Air, Water, Waste and Death

UN Environment and WHO have agreed a new, wide-ranging collaboration to accelerate action to curb environmental health risks that cause an estimated 12.6 million deaths a year.

On January 10, 2018 in Nairobi, Mr Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, and Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, signed an agreement to step up joint actions to combat air pollution, climate change and antimicrobial resistance, as well as improve coordination on waste and chemicals management, water quality, and food and nutrition issues. The collaboration also includes joint management of the BreatheLife advocacy campaign to reduce air pollution for multiple climate, environment and health benefits

“Our health is directly related to the health of the environment we live in. Together, air, water and chemical hazards kill more than 12.6 million people a year. This must not continue,” said WHO’s Tedros.  He added: “Most of these deaths occur in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America where environmental pollution takes its biggest health toll.”

Excerpts from, UN Environment and WHO agree to major collaboration on environmental health risks, Press Release, Jan. 10, 2017

Coercive Greening: debt-for-sea

image from wikipedia

The Seychelles is an archipelago of 115 mostly tiny islands, whose collective area, at 460 sq km, is only about a third of London’s. But the country’s granite islands and coral atolls sit within an exclusive economic zone of 1.4m sq km. It is here, in the ocean, that conservationists are working on a new way for small countries to protect their marine environment.

The Seychelles’ economy relies on tourism and tuna. These depend on healthy seas. But paying for conservation is a challenge, says Didier Dogley, the environment minister. So last year the country struck a deal with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an American NGO. It promised to protect 30% of its waters by 2020—half of this area will be off-limits to fishing. In return, TNC bought up $21.6m of debt owed by the Seychelles to the Paris Club of international creditors. It will allow the country to pay it back at a lower interest rate over a longer period.

The complex deal took four years to thrash out. Still, not everyone is happy. Some fishermen worry that their favourite spots will become no-go zones….The blue economy is a new idea, but like the green economy it is catching on. The World Bank is backing a planned $15m “blue bond” for the Seychelles, which will fund sustainable fisheries. TNC is planning its own blue bonds, which would underpin deals similar to the one it agreed with the Seychelles. “I can see doing a billion dollars of these deals in a decade,” says Rob Weary, TNC’s financial guru…Already Mauritius is looking to copy parts of the Seychelles deal. Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania and the Comoro Islands have also shown interest.

Excerpts from The Seychelles: Debt Relief for Dolphins, Economist, Sept. 9, 2017