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Radiation Exposure Levels Challenged

Environmental News Service: October 29, 2009

WASHINGTON, DC, October 29, 2009 (ENS) - Public employees have filed a lawsuit demanding documents related to the U.S. EPA's plans made "in secrecy" to allow public exposure to increased levels of radioactivity following nuclear accidents or attacks. The lawsuit filed Wednesday by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility under the Freedom of Information Act claims that the agency "wrongfully withheld" comments submitted by EPA and other federal and state agency officials and by representatives of private corporations or trade associations to the EPA Office of Radiation and Indoor Air as it prepared its updated Protective Action Guides.

The radiation guides are protocols for responding to incidents ranging from nuclear power plant accidents to transportation spills to dirty bombs.

"The new draft standards have been promulgated in secrecy despite sharp controversy about allowing public exposure to radiation levels vastly higher than those EPA had previously deemed unacceptably dangerous," claims PEER, a national nonprofit alliance of resource professionals employed by government agencies at the local, state and federal levels.

"EPA has bypassed open dialogue on how much radiation the public will be allowed to receive in the event of a release, and is now suppressing evidence of internal dissent on these controversial proposals," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

PEER said in a statement Wednesday that it has received "verbal reports that both internal and external reviewers registered grave concerns about the radical relaxation of radiation exposure limits being proposed."

In its lawsuit, PEER claims the comments are a matter of public concern because they address whether EPA is meeting its mission of protecting the environment and public health with respect to radiation releases.

The new radiation guides would increase allowable public exposure to radioactivity in drinking water, including a nearly 1,000-fold increase in strontium-90, a 3,000 to 100,000-fold hike for iodine-131, and an almost 25,000 increase for nickel-63.

The new radiation guidance would also allow long-term cleanup standards thousands of times more lax than anything EPA has ever before accepted, permitting doses to the public that EPA itself estimates would cause a cancer in every fourth person exposed.

These relaxations of radiation protection requirements are favored by the nuclear industry and allies in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Energy Department, PEER claims.

The plan to relax radiation standards was signed off on in the final days of the Bush administration, and suspended by the new Obama administration prior to its publication. Obama EPA appointees are now weighing the plan.

On June 11, 2009, PEER submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act for all of the comments to the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air.

ORIA has yet to produce any of the documents requested by PEER, months beyond the response deadlines mandated under the Freedom of Information Act.

On October 16, EPA's Office of General Counsel directed ORIA to comply but conceded that the only way to enforce its order would be in court. ORIA had not met previous self-announced timelines for delivery of documents or promises to provide records on a rolling basis, as they had been cleared for release.

"President Obama directed all agencies to act in a transparent way by placing important documents in the public domain in a timely fashion," said PEER Counsel Christine Erickson who drafted the complaint. "Avoiding embarrassment is not a legal basis for deception or delay."

Congressman Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, has expressed concerns about EPA's intentions to allow a different standard for radiation exposures following nuclear emergencies than are now in place in the Safe Drinking Water Act and other environmental laws.

On Tuesday, Markey, who chairs the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson raising "serious concerns over the potential for weakening federal policies designed to protect the public from the potentially dangerous effects of radiation."

In the letter, Markey expressed concern about ORIA's draft "Blue Book" released in December 2008. In the past, Blue Books have formed the basis for EPA's radiation protection regulations.

In this draft, ORIA proposes using risk figures that are almost all less protective than the National Academy of Sciences recommended in its BEIR VII study to Assess health risks from exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation, which was partially sponsored and funded by EPA.

This study found that "even the smallest radiation dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans," Markey wrote.

But the guidelines proposed by the Bush administration "actually allow for levels of radioactivity that are thousands of times higher than the requirements found in traditional toxic clean-up guidance," he wrote.

"Additionally, long-term clean-up standards are proposed that are so remarkably high that they could result in a cancer risk that EPA itself estimates at a breathtaking 1 in 4," he wrote.

Markey asked a series of questions related to EPA's use of the "Reference Man" method to evaluate compliance with radiation regulations. This model assumes that the typical exposed individual is an average-sized adult male, even though pregnant women, children and other vulnerable populations could be much more impacted by radiation exposures.

"From disposing of nuclear waste to protecting the water we drink, we must do everything in our power to ensure that government policy follows the strongest possible standards governing exposure to radiation," said Markey.

"Why should people who have been victimized by a nuclear attack or accident be further subjected to a relaxation of the radiation protection standards EPA has previously deemed safe?," he said. "The stakes are simply too high to accept anything less than the strongest scientific recommendations."

Markey requested that Administrator Jackson answer his questions no later than November 16, 2009.

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