Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Nuke waste landfill
plan assailed

The EPA questions a Pentagon
plan to bury radioactive
materials at Johnston Island

By Diana Leone

The Environmental Protection Agency is questioning the wisdom of another federal agency's plan to bury plutonium and other radioactive materials in a shallow landfill on Johnston Island.

At issue is coral, metal and concrete debris that was contaminated in 1962 by two aborted nuclear missile launches. The rubble has higher-than-acceptable concentrations of plutonium oxide and americium, a decay product of plutonium.

Manmade plutonium, used for weapons and nuclear reactors, is one of the most hazardous radioactive elements, remaining dangerous for 6,000 to 24,000 years.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a Defense Department unit charged with reducing risk from weapons of mass destruction, proposes burying the contaminated material in Johnston Island's Radiological Control Area at a cost of $1.5 million. Johnston Island is about 800 miles west-southwest of Honolulu.

Ray Saracino, the San Francisco-based EPA project manager who has been reviewing the plan, told the Star-Bulletin yesterday that his concerns include:

>> Anything buried on Johnston Island faces the likelihood of being released into the ocean as the island erodes. The seawall around the island is expected to collapse in the near future.

>> He is not satisfied with the defense agency's conclusion that there are no observable effects of current radiation levels on the marine environment and suggests that more extensive studies should be done.

>> Unless the current radiation levels can be proved to have no ill effect, he's not comfortable with creating a situation where additional radiation could be released into the ocean.

His comments expressing these concerns were mailed to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency yesterday, the final day of a public comment period on its plans. However, the EPA does not have authority over the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Defense Threat Reduction Agency officials could not be reached for comment.

There are three separate military cleanup operations on Johnston Island, each handled by a separate government agency, plus the planned overall closure of military operations there, which is spearheaded by the Air Force. The three operations are:

>> An Air Force cleanup of soils where it stored Agent Orange, the herbicide used in the Vietnam War, and where there is some PCB contamination. A 10-year EPA permit was granted to the Air Force yesterday regarding its plan for thermal treatment of these areas, at a cost of about $15 million.

>> The Defense Threat Reduction Agency's proposal for cleanup of radioactive materials.

>> The Army's Johnson Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System, which has completed destruction of chemical weapons and is moving into the closeout phase.

Johnston Atoll consists of four small islands, the largest of which is the 625-acre Johnston Island. The island is home to a national wildlife refuge and about 700 military personnel. Military use of the island is slated to end in 2003 or 2004, Saracino said.

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