Environmental activists who want the federal government to take over the regulation of an Idaho laboratory are saying that a new report on water pollution bolsters their cause. ?A coalition of groups petitioned the U.S. government last month to remove Idaho’s authority to enforce hazardous waste laws. The petitioners alleged that the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) inadequately regulated the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) over the last decade. INEEL, a huge and multifaceted research facility, began as a Cold War nuclear research site and has grappled with hazardous waste disposal issues for years.
Chuck Broscious, director of one of the petitioning groups, the Troy, Idaho-based Environmental Defense Institute, says that a new study about water pollution in the area shows the full impact of inadequate regulation of INEEL.
The Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research issued a report Wednesday about pollution in the Snake River Plain aquifer. The aquifer provides all the drinking water for 200,000 people in southern Idaho, and is a major source of irrigation water for Idaho’s crops. A large portion of the aquifer runs underneath INEEL.
In the 1950s and 1960s, plutonium from INEEL was dumped into shallow trenches packaged in cardboard and wooden boxes and 55-gallon drums, according to the report. Some radioactive and hazardous materials have migrated toward the aquifer due to rain, snow, and flooding.
“Evidence has existed for more than 25 years that these long-lived radionuclides are migrating … to the aquifer much faster than anticipated,” the report reads.
While Broscious sees the report as proof that INEEL’s problems are not being dealt with properly, state regulators say that the report merely synthesizes government research over a long period of time and that the problems are being handled.
“At least some of their conclusions were a little more alarmist than what we have drawn,” says Kathleen Trevor, Idaho’s coordinator for INEEL issues. “There is actually a process in place for cleaning up contamination from INEEL.”
There is no set timetable for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate and act on the petition. The groups called for the EPA inspector general to investigate the situation, and according to EPA official Jeff Hunt, that could take at least a year.
Raising awareness and debate in the public and among politicians is just as important as the EPA’s final ruling, Broscious says.
“By articulating the problems at the site, it puts the issue in the face of the policymakers so that they know unequivocally that we know what’s going on,” Broscious says. “And hopefully the public is going to find out so it’s not something that’s been buried, as it has been in the past.”