The Environmental Protection Agency is walking away after a decades-long battle with Florida politicians and industry officials over cleaning up phosphate-mining waste in an area that could expose more than 100,000 residents to cancer-causing radiation levels.
Under a decision quietly finalized two weeks ago, the federal agency will leave it to state officials to decide the fate of the sites in and around Lakeland, an approximately 10-square-mile residential area midway between Orlando and Tampa.
However, Florida officials have long argued that the affected area need not be cleaned up in the absence of radiation levels well above what EPA policy would normally permit. The decision not to enforce the usual federal rules could have far-reaching implications for how the United States deals with future radioactive contamination anywhere across the country -- regardless of whether it is caused by conventional industrial activities or illicit radiological weapons, critics say.
In a joint statement to Global Security Newswire, the Florida health and environment departments say they have no plans to examine the sites further, despite prior recommendations by federal officials that an aerial radiation survey of the area is needed. The state officials say they already have enough historical data pertaining to the sites, and that additional monitoring is not necessary.
The statement, provided to GSN by Florida environmental protection spokeswoman Mara Burger, suggests the EPA decision not to clean up the sites under its Superfund program indicated that the federal agency did not consider the Lakeland area "problematic" from a public health standpoint.
Under Superfund law, the federal agency is authorized to remediate contaminated sites that pose a threat to public health and the environment.
Internal documents released under the Freedom of Information Act in recent years show, however, that the federal agency's lack of action was the result of state and industry opposition, and that EPA officials did in fact believe the sites could pose a serious public health threat.
"It's probably the worst site EPA could clean up from a public health standpoint, when you consider the number of potential cancers and the size of the affected population," one source familiar with the Florida case told GSN. The source was not authorized to discuss the issue and asked not to be named in this article.
In response to questions about the matter, EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris Young did not address whether the sites posed a health risk. She said only that the state had separate "regulatory and educational programs in place."
"EPA believes that addressing all of the former phosphate mines under one regulatory scheme would provide regulatory consistency for the landowners, businesses and residents of Florida," the federal agency spokeswoman said.
The EPA decision not to enforce its Superfund standards at the Florida sites is consistent with a controversial new guide for dealing with the aftermath of dirty bomb attacks, nuclear power-plant meltdowns and other radiological incidents that the agency published last year, Daniel Hirsch, a nuclear policy lecturer at the University of California-Santa Cruz, told GSN.
Documents GSN obtained in 2013 prompted concern among critics that EPA officials are looking to use the new guide -- which is backed by the nuclear power industry -- as a means for relaxing its radiation standards.
The agency's approach to the Florida case lends further credence to the concern that it is backing away from its long-held radiological cleanup rules generally, Hirsch said.
"The agency is lowering the EPA flag outside the building and raising the white flag of surrender," he quipped.
Three Decades of Concern
Although government officials have said little about the Florida situation publicly, federal involvement at the sites surrounding Lakeland began in 1979. That's when EPA scientists first warned their superiors that the area could pose a health threat.
The scientists noted that past phosphate mining had created elevated concentrations of radium-226 in the area's soil. Radium produces gamma rays that can penetrate the body and increase the risk for a variety of cancers. Inhaling or ingesting the uranium byproduct can increase the risk of leukemia, lymphoma and bone cancer, specifically.
In addition, the decay of radium creates radon, an odorless, radioactive gas that can increase the risk of lung cancer by seeping into homes and polluting indoor air.
Given these risks, the EPA scientists advised that no new homes should be built on the sites until further studies were completed, but the agency took no action and residential development continued.
The Environmental Protection Agency paid little attention to the Lakeland area sites until the new millennium, agency documents show. By that time, agency officials estimated that as many as 120,000 people living on 40,000 residential parcels could be exposed to unsafe radiation levels.
In 2003, EPA officials deemed the potential problem at one Lakeland subdivision -- an upscale development of about 500 homes called "Oakbridge" -- to be so bad that they considered it a candidate for emergency cleanup action. Low-income and minority communities might also be affected, internal documents show -- creating so-called "environmental justice" concerns for the agency.
Regional politics intervened, however, and the agency did little more in the way of studying the issue over the subsequent decade. Residents were not warned of the EPA concerns and no remedial actions were taken.
Phosphate mining industry officials, who represent the second largest revenue-producing enterprise in the Sunshine State, made it known in private meetings that they strongly opposed the agency declaring the parcels Superfund sites. Such a move could make mining companies liable for as much as $11 billion in cleanup costs, according to estimates of the potential scope of the contamination that the EPA inspector general included in a 2004 report.
State health and environment officials operating under Republican governorships sided with industry, taking the position that no cleanup action was necessary if residents were being exposed to less than 500 millirems of radiation per year. State officials said this approach was permissible under guidelines suggested by the privately run National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.
However, at the 500-millirem-per-year level, the cancer risk for humans is roughly 1 in 40, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry noted in a 2006 internal report it prepared regarding the Florida dispute.
EPA cleanup policy dictates that, in a worst-case scenario, no more than one in 10,000 people should be put at risk for developing cancer from manmade contamination.
Following 2010 news reports about the standoff, EPA officials began making preparations for an aerial radiation survey that was to enable them to get a better handle on the scope and severity of the problem. The plans stalled, however, after a group of Republican lawmakers from Florida -- siding with state and mining-industry officials -- pressured the agency not to conduct the survey.
Last March, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection proposed that the state -- rather than the federal government -- direct all future actions pertaining to the sites, according to a March 13 letter sent by Jorge Caspary, waste management director at Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, to Franklin Hill, EPA Region 4 Superfund director.
Hill agreed to the Florida proposal in a letter back to Caspary earlier this month.
The Jan. 14 letter suggests that after more than three decades of internal concerns about residents' health -- and years of disagreement with the state and mining industry -- the federal government is walking away from the sites permanently.
"Because the state would manage the phosphate mining sites that were historically listed in [the EPA Superfund database] under Florida's existing programs, there would be no further federal interest in these sites under Superfund and EPA would change their [database] status to ‘Archived,'" Hill wrote.
In the letter, Hill does not explicitly agree with Florida's previously stated position that cleanup action is unnecessary unless residents are being exposed to more than 500 millirems of radiation per year. In fact, the correspondence between Hill and Caspary makes no mention of numerical cleanup thresholds at all.
In their statement to GSN, the Florida environmental protection and health departments said it is "not necessarily the case" that they would take no remedial action unless residents are being exposed to more than 500 millirems of radiation per year.
For instance, residents might be exposed to gamma ray radiation through direct contact with radium-contaminated soil in their yards. Florida officials say that while they have no plans to investigate the sites further, they hypothetically would consider taking action if such exposure caused residents to receive a dose of more than 100 millirems of radiation per year. At this level, about one in 300 people would be expected to develop cancer -- a risk 30 times greater than the EPA worst-case-scenario of one in 10,000.
Even then, however, "the state would need additional site specific information in order to determine what actions may be needed, including whether work should be done to mitigate risk or otherwise remediate the site," state officials said.
Florida officials say they do not believe direct exposure to radiation from the soil is a significant risk, and that the main factor in determining whether there is a public health concern at a home should instead be the amount of radon gas polluting indoor air. Mitigating indoor radon contamination is generally cheaper than cleaning up radium-contaminated soil. Indoor radon pollution can often be addressed though the installation of ventilation systems beneath homes, while cleanup of radium-contaminated soil can require massive excavation projects.
But according to critics, focusing on radon -- and not soil contamination -- is a dramatic break from how the federal government would normally address such a site. For one thing, this approach does not account for the body-penetrating gamma rays residents might be exposed to through more direct contact with the soil in their yards. Nor does it factor in the risk of inhaling or ingesting the contamination.
In addition, the EPA reference level that state officials say they would use to determine whether action is needed to address indoor radon pollution is not based on health considerations. Instead, it is based on how much radon current ventilation technology is capable of eliminating.
According to the federal agency's website, there is no "safe" level of radon exposure. However, it can be difficult to reduce radon levels much lower than 4 picocuries per liter of air -- the level that Florida officials are using as their threshold for health concerns. Congress passed legislation in 1988 setting a goal of reducing indoor radon levels to between 0.2 and 0.7 picocuries per liter, but the technology needed to meet that goal does not yet exist.
One in 43 people would be expected to die of cancer from a lifetime of radon exposure at the 4 picocurie per liter level, the EPA website says. The average level of radon in homes is about 1.25 picocuries per liter.
A Different Approach
While the EPA Superfund program considers the amount of radon gas entering homes, its decisions regarding whether to remediate manmade radium contamination are usually driven largely by how much of the radioactive metal is present in the soil. For radium in soil, the threshold the federal agency normally uses is 5 picocuries per gram, not including the amount of radium that would occur in soil naturally. It is at this level of radium and below that the agency would consider a site to be in compliance with its cancer risk guidelines.
In its 2006 report, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry noted that the federal government has relied upon the 5 picocurie per gram of soil standard at many sites, and listed some in Pennsylvania, New Mexico, New York and Michigan as examples. However, Florida officials considered the threshold to be "overly conservative," the federal agency's report noted.
At the time, Florida officials were pushing for the 500 millirem per year radiation dose limit to be used as a threshold, though they now say they would focus largely on radon in indoor air, with the possible 100 millirem per year dose threshold for exposure to gamma rays from radium in the soil.
Either way, not relying on the 5 picocurie per gram of soil threshold as a trigger for remedial action is a major departure from normal EPA policy, critics say.
Until now, "I've never heard of them abandoning their 5 picocurie per gram limit -- that's used all over the place," Hirsch told GSN. "What EPA ought to face is that it looks as though, under political pressure, they've undermined their entire regulatory structure for cleanup of radium-contaminated soils."
According to EPA documents released in recent years under the Freedom of Information Act, a lack of financial resources has contributed to the agency's reluctance to enforce its usual public health standards at the Florida sites.
Normally, the agency can conduct cleanups on its own terms and then sue the companies it believes are responsible for the contamination in order to recoup its costs.
However, a tight budget environment -- along with the anticipated enormous scope of the contamination in Florida -- gave the agency little leverage in negotiations with the phosphate mining industry, according to the EPA documents.
Industry officials made clear they were not interested in assisting with a cleanup conducted along the lines of the agency's usual Superfund protocols. Without sufficient federal funds available, EPA officials could not credibly threaten to force industry's hand.
Meanwhile, Florida Republicans in Congress argued that the phosphate industry was too important to the state's economy to risk harm by undertaking costly cleanup actions they thought unnecessary.
Faced with a difficult political situation, it appears that EPA officials tried to word the new agreement with Florida in a way that would defer oversight of the contaminated area to the state without acknowledging the difference between the state and federal public health standards, Hirsch said.
He suggested that the omission of numerical standards in the Hill and Caspary correspondence this month appears to be a veiled admission by EPA officials that the amount of radioactive contamination the state would allow would not be considered safe under federal policy.
"What the agency doesn't say speaks volumes -- they know these numbers are outrageous," Hirsch said. "The fact that they capitulate without even discussing them is further evidence of their dirty hands."
The source who asked not to be named said it was doubtful the exclusion of specific numbers in the correspondence would actually stop parties responsible for radioactive contamination from trying to cite the Florida case as a justification for not cleaning up to normal EPA standards, however.
"I would make that argument if I was on that side," said the source. "You'd be stupid not to."