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EPA Nominee Declines Comment on Controversial Nuclear Incident Guide

The Obama administration’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency declined on Thursday to answer questions about a controversial new guide that suggests public health standards could be relaxed dramatically in the event of a nuclear attack or accident.

Asked to comment on concerns that the guide references drinking water guidelines nearly 30,000 times less stringent than EPA rules, Gina McCarthy remained silent following her Senate confirmation hearing. An aide said “no comment” and pushed a reporter out of the way.

Called a protective action guide for radiological incidents, the new document references International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines suggesting intervention is not needed until drinking water is contaminated with radioactive iodine 131 at a concentration of 81,000 picocuries per liter. This is 27,000 times less stringent than the EPA rule of three picocuries per liter.

The document has created an uproar among watchdog groups and is now also attracting attention on Capitol Hill, according to a congressional aide with knowledge of the issue. The staffer asked to remain anonymous due to not being authorized do discuss the matter publicly, but told Global Security Newswire that lawmakers are looking at the issue for the purpose of commenting in more detail at a later date.

Previously, an EPA spokeswoman noted that the guide would be subject to a 90-day public comment period once it is formally published in the Federal Register. The document, which was posted on the EPA website Friday evening, is already labeled for “interim use.”

Some activists have blamed McCarthy for various controversies surrounding the development of the new guide, which was under her purview as the agency’s assistant administrator for air and radiation. They have argued the document is not fundamentally different from a prior version drafted by the Bush administration that was blocked by the Obama camp during its first days in office and say the issue merits some attention during McCarthy’s confirmation process.

McCarthy’s confirmation hearing on Thursday consisted largely of partisan disputes between Republicans concerned about the prospect of tougher air and climate control regulations and Democrats who argued such measures need consideration. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.,, an ardent McCarthy supporter, said she hoped a vote on the nomination would happen within a matter of weeks but that she had yet to secure a commitment from fellow senators. Previously, Senator Roy Blunt, R-Mo., threatened to hold up McCarthy’s confirmation, according to press reports.

In addition to the concerns about drinking water guidelines, watchdog groups have complained the new EPA guide suggests the agency might not employ long-held Superfund cleanup standards following an attack with a radiological “dirty bomb” or nuclear weapon, or an incident at a nuclear power plant. A recent report chartered by the Homeland Security Department suggests remediation guidelines under which as many as one in 20 people would be expected to develop cancer from long-term radiation exposure.

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