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Air Force ships Calif. radioactive waste to Idaho landfill

After California regulators refused to allow the U.S. Air Force to label residue from radioactive aircraft instruments as “naturally occurring” – declaring it unsuitable for a Bakersfield-area dump – the military turned to Idaho with the same story.

There, military officials met with success. The Air Force is now sending radioactive waste from Sacramento County’s McClellan Air Force Base to a Grand View, Idaho, hazardous waste landfill.

This solution involved a bit of legal semantics rejected in California despite 10 months of Air Force lobbying: The military claimed radium dust left over from glow-in-the-dark aircraft instruments actually was naturally occurring, putting it the same relatively lax regulatory category as mine tailings, according to government memos obtained by California Watch through a public records request.

Larry Morgan, a health physicist with the California Department of Public Health, disagreed with that characterization. Radioactive paint does not “meet the definition” of naturally occurring waste, he wrote in a September 2011 memo.

The Idaho facility’s permit allows it to accept materials defined as natural without notifying state regulators, leaving the state’s hazardous waste manager in the dark.


“I’m not familiar with this particular waste stream. I intend to find out now that you’ve contacted me,” Robert Bullock, hazardous waste permits manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said during an October interview.

Filed under: Environment, Daily Report


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Navy's Treasure Island radiation report found wanting

Recent U.S. Navy explanations for widespread readings of radioactivity on the former Treasure Island Naval Station don’t adequately explore the possibility that the base might have been dusted for years with radioactive ash, soaked with radioactive sewage and contaminated by radioactive garbage, California health regulators said today.

The response addressed an Aug. 6 draft report by the Navy, which was aimed at assuaging concerns about the base’s history of radioactive material. It detailed possible sources, including devices used to train sailors for nuclear war. It also described ship repair operations that occurred during an era when vessels frequently returned to the San Francisco Bay from Pacific atomic tests.

The Navy’s report is part of the process of turning the military land over to the city of San Francisco, which has approved construction of 8,000 homes there.


The August draft included the Navy’s acknowledgement that the base’s radiation history was more widespread than previously reported. But the Navy also sought to assure state and city officials that a radioactive cleanup was well in hand, and that the base should be ready for preliminary development some time in 2013.

However, the California Department of Public Health, which raised concerns in 2010 about possible deficiencies in the Navy’s radioactive cleanup, suggested today in its response to that draft that the military agency might have significant work to do to earn a clean bill of health.

Among examples cited by health department officials:

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report


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Navy sought to stifle concerns of radiation on island, emails show

As U.S. Navy officials readied a report this summer acknowledging a broader history of radioactive contamination at Treasure Island, they also sought to prevent California health officials from adding to the written record their concerns that the cleanup had been mishandled, according to internal emails.

The Navy acknowledged for the first time on Aug. 6 that the former Treasure Island Naval Station, where San Francisco plans to build a 20,000-resident high-rise community, was home to a repair and salvage operation for the Pacific fleet and that some of those ships could have been contaminated with radiation. The draft report also said that a school preparing sailors for nuclear warfare might have left behind radioactive residue.

The study came in response to regulators with the California Department of Public Health, who since 2010 have pressed for details after cleanup workers found radioactive waste in unexpected locations.


Internal emails show that health officials asked the military as recently as mid-May to step up radiation testing efforts. Military officials, meanwhile, pressed for health regulators not to present their concerns in writing.

On May 10, Anthony Konzen, a Navy manager of the Treasure Island cleanup, wrote in an email that he did not believe that California public health officials had the authority to regulate the cleanup of radioactive materials.

“I don’t believe comments will be needed,” he wrote.


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Private wells outside Fresno test positive for contaminants

Locals like to say that Easton is closer to Fresno than parts of Fresno, but as an unincorporated community seven miles south of downtown, residents relish its small-town ways.

“We don’t have the same commodities and resources, but we can hear the crickets at night and it’s peaceful and there are freedoms here," said Sue Ruiz, who serves as the president of the Easton Community Services District.

A 2-square-mile enclave of about 665 homes, Easton has more than a half-dozen well-attended churches and two wide-lawned schools set against a backdrop of vineyards, almond orchards and two-lane roads. Chitchat with neighbors is easy and cordial – until the conversation turns to water, an issue that has divided neighbors and families who continue to debate whether Easton needs to move away from its system of private wells.

Because of its agricultural roots and the houses built with septic tanks on small lots near water wells, Easton is prone to groundwater contamination, community health advocates said. Yet the overall water quality there is largely unknown because the majority of the community’s 2,000 residents live in homes that rely on unregulated private wells.

Following requests from some residents and local businesses, the community services district – which primarily oversees streetlights, landscaping and recreational spaces on an annual budget of $65,000 ­– decided to hire a firm to test a portion of Easton wells last year.

“There are concerns about water quality, but we didn’t know for sure,” Ruiz said. "We decided to go beyond perception and find fact.”


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Water quality boards seek to manage nitrate contamination

It started in 2001 and mostly affected the very young and very old. Peoples’ hair would fall out, their skin would break out in rashes and their eyes would turn red after showers.

“That was how people were hurt on the outside,” said Horacio Amezquita, manager of the San Jerardo Cooperative, which houses about 250 low-income people in Salinas. “On the inside, we don’t know.”

Amezquita, a former farm worker, has lived at the cooperative for 33 years. Many of the residents work on nearby farms that use nitrogen-based fertilizers to help crops grow.

But the fertilizers that keep these farms in business leach into the soil and drinking water.

A report published last year by California Watch and KQED revealed that statewide, the number of wells that exceeded health limits for nitrates increased from nine in 1980 to 648 in 2007. That includes the water supply of more than 2 million Californians.

Nitrate-contaminated water can lead to serious health problems, including methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome, a disease that develops when an infant’s organs, cells and tissues do not receive enough oxygen.

Studies also have linked nitrates with cancer, Crohn’s disease, thyroid disruption and depression, among other illnesses. Regions with the highest nitrate pollution include major agricultural regions, such as the Imperial, Central and Salinas valleys, and other coastal areas in California. Regulators classify nitrates as acute contaminants, which means people can experience severe reactions with only one taste or one glass.


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