EPA withholds information on dirty bomb report

Featured eBooks

Digital First
Cybersecurity & the Road Ahead
Emerging Technology Trends

The information could reveal whether the officials are speaking out against their own agency’s long-held health standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is declining to release information on a controversial federal report that could lead people living near the site of a radiological “dirty bomb” attack to face greater cancer risks than what the agency would normally allow.

The information – which includes presentations two EPA staffers made to the panel of experts that is drafting the new report – could reveal whether the officials are speaking out against their own agency’s long-held health standards, observers say. The report is expected to suggest guidelines under which as many as one in 23 people would be expected to develop cancer from long-term radiation exposure, a sharp contrast to the EPA standard of one in 10,000 in a worst-case scenario.

The panel drafting the document was organized by the private National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements with public funds provided by the Homeland Security Department. Nonetheless, the Environmental Protection Agency has rejected multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for access to the presentations.

Observers suggest withholding the information violates the spirit of an executive order President Obama signed regarding government transparency early in his first term. The order instructed executive agencies to err on the side of openness, even in cases where they could make legal arguments against disclosure.

Mark Caramanica, attorney and freedom of information director for the Reporter’s Committee, a group dedicated to free press and open government, said it was particularly noteworthy that the NCRP panel is comprised largely of federal officials and that its forthcoming report is meant to expand upon a 2008 DHS guide for cleaning up after a dirty bomb incident.

“These are people that are doing the same types of analysis and policy work that they would be doing in their regular jobs, only now it’s in the guise of this independent contracting outfit,” Caramanica said. “So it seems to me they’re essentially still performing their government functions and the government shouldn’t be outsourcing it and then claiming that FOIA doesn’t apply.”

Expected sometime this year, the report is to pick up where the DHS document – often called a “protective action guide” – left off. The DHS guide introduced a loosely defined cleanup approached called “optimization,” which the document says involves weighing factors such as human health and public welfare against cost and economic impact. However, unlike the EPA Superfund approach that has been used at hundreds of contaminated sites during the last 30 years, optimization includes no specific cleanup targets, making it unclear how it would work in a real-world scenario.

Homeland Security in 2010 began providing funds so that the NCRP panel could draft a report that would provide more detail on how optimization would work. Last year, the panel’s chairman told Global Security Newswire that the report is likely to suggest that a radiation dose to the human body of between 100 and 2,000 millirems per year is the target officials should keep in mind when deciding how to clean up after a “dirty bomb,” a crude weapon that would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive contamination.

Roughly one in 23 people would be expected to develop cancer after receiving a 2,000 millirem dose of radiation annually for 30 years, based on estimates from the International Commission on Radiological Protection, a nongovernmental organization whose work is expected to help form the basis for the report’s recommendations. Approximately one in 466 people would likely develop cancer from an annual dose of 100 millirems over the same time period, according to calculations GSN performed using ICRP projections.

Remediation of toxic U.S. properties is normally designed so one out of 10,000 people exposed to a site for 30 years would be expected to develop cancer in a worst-case scenario, based on guidelines established in the 1980s by the Superfund program. One in 1 million people would likely develop cancer in the best possible situation.

One of the two EPA officials involved with the forthcoming report is Jonathan Edwards, director of the EPA radiation protection division. On Nov. 3, 2010, Edwards made a presentation to the NCRP panel on EPA emergency response procedures and the Superfund cleanup process during a meeting in Bethesda, Md. This prompted concern from nuclear watchdog groups, since Edwards is not involved with that program but instead heads a division that had proposed adopting optimization – rather than more stringent Superfund protocol – in the agency’s own guidance for cleaning up after radiation incidents.

The 2008 attempt to adopt optimization in EPA guidelines drew opposition from some agency staff and state government officials and prompted a coalition of more than 60 groups to sign onto a letter condemning the plan. The Obama administration froze action on the effort upon taking office in 2009, and a revised version of the EPA guide is now pending review at the White House Management and Budget Office.

Last year, GSN submitted a FOIA request for a copy of Edwards’ presentation. The request also sought a copy of a presentation that John Cardarelli, of the EPA emergency management office, made to the NCRP panel on June 12, 2012, also in Bethesda.

Cardarelli gave a presentation on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis in Japan. His presentation also created concern among watchdog groups, since he had previously been involved in development of a website that suggested the Japanese could use optimization, rather than Superfund, to clean up after the power plant meltdown. Cardarelli has been one of numerous officials from outside Japan who have offered Tokyo advice on how to clean up after the disaster; activists fear his statements could set a precedent affecting domestic U.S. policy.

Edwards deputy Alan Perrin denied the FOIA request in a Sept. 14 letter, asserting the EPA employees were not acting in their official capacity when they made their presentations to the federally funded panel.

“While EPA employees may participate in NCRP programs, as technical consultants and advisers in the case of this panel, they contribute their services voluntarily in support of council objectives; they do not participate as EPA representatives,” Perrin wrote.

Kevin Miller, assistant general counsel in the EPA General Law Office, upheld GSN’s appeal of the agency’s decision on Oct. 23.

The newswire then submitted another FOIA request, seeking records that would indicate whether Edwards and Cardarelli had been granted unpaid leave to give their presentations during regular business hours. Perrin denied this request in a Dec. 4 letter, saying that releasing such information “would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Late last month, NCRP President John Boice also declined to release the presentations. Global Security Newswire has since submitted a new FOIA request, this time seeking any EPA records or e-mails pertaining to the two officials’ involvement with the NCRP panel.

Daniel Hirsch, who as president of the watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap led the 2008 opposition to including optimization in EPA guidelines, said the refusal to release the presentations is alarming.

“It sounds outrageous – you essentially have an effort to undermine radiation protection standards in which EPA personnel are participating and then EPA is violating the Freedom of Information Act to keep that conduct form being disclosed,” Hirsch said. “It just sounds like government out of control.”

Hirsch and other critics fear the forthcoming report could set a precedent for a wide range of environmental remediation projects, ranging from cleanup of a dirty bomb site to work at former nuclear weapons facilities and industrial sites throughout the United States.

Caramanica, the attorney with the Reporter’s Committee, suggested it was also significant that DHS officials had initially sought to include a radiation dose range similar to the one the NCRP report is expected to recommend in its 2008 guide but that they were ultimately unable to do so due to opposition from other federal and state agencies.

“They initially did this in-house and came up with all these policy considerations and guidelines and went forward with producing it and it didn’t go anywhere,” Caramanica noted. “Now they decide to consult with an outside contractor, staff it with a bunch of federal employees, go through the same exact process and now tell you that none of the records are accessible under FOIA.”