Saturday, October 19, 2002

Liability concerns loom
over Johnston dump

By Diana Leone

Some 800 miles southwest of Honolulu on Johnston Island, a contractor hopes to complete a 25-acre landfill of radioactive rubble by next month.

The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, has pledged that radiation exposure on top of the landfill will meet Environmental Protection Agency standards set for the whole island.

But there's a hitch. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is scheduled to become the sole caretaker of the island after the military leaves in 2004, doesn't want the liability of the radioactive dump.

The Fish and Wildlife Service maintains that "land-filling of plutonium contaminated material on Johnston Island is not appropriate, and that it should be shipped off-island to a radioactive waste facility," Regional Director Anne Badgley wrote in a July 25 letter to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Fish and Wildlife officials are still waiting to hear from the defense agency about how to resolve the impasse, said Don Palawski, who oversees Pacific Island refuges, including Johnston, for Fish and Wildlife.

The landfill contains 45,000 cubic meters of radioactive material, the last remnants of fallout from two failed 1962 test explosions of nuclear warheads that contaminated Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. The material is buried under 2 feet of coral.

Johnston Island is the largest of four islands and the site of military activity that has coexisted with the refuge.

Because nuclear fission never occurred, EPA engineer Ray Saracino likens the plutonium contamination to what people today call a "dirty bomb." It will take 24,000 years before half of the plutonium decomposes to a harmless state, he said.

A Maui-based watchdog group, Earth Foundation, has sent out e-mails questioning whether contaminated fish from Johnston could pose a health risk to people in Hawaii.

That possibility is "extremely remote," for a number of reasons, including the distance and the fact that plutonium isn't readily absorbed by fish, Saracino said.

However, the EPA is advising the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to do a complete assessment of the effect of radioactive pollution already in the Johnston Atoll environment and to explain how it will handle long-term stewardship of the radioactive landfill.

To address the first EPA concern, Defense Threat Reduction Agency has commissioned an Ecological Risk Assessment Report, which will be completed by June 2003, said spokesman Marcus Wilson.

The material buried in the new landfill accounts for only about 10 percent of the 16 kilograms of plutonium released in 1962, Saracino said. The rest has been buried deep at sea or is dispersed in the lagoon.

That's why assessing how wildlife have been doing under those conditions for the last 40 years is key to deciding future safeguards for the area, Saracino said.

An oasis for reef and bird life, Johnston Atoll is home to 32 species of coral, 300 species of fish, the threatened and endangered green sea turtle and Hawaiian monk seal, and 20 species of migratory birds.

As long as the radioactive material stays "buried it's not a human health issue," Fish and Wildlife's Palawski said. "But there's a longer-term issue with the possibility of sea wall failure and material being exposed to the surface or released to the marine environment."

"DTRA will monitor the (landfill) site for construction defects as long as there is commercial air service to Johnston Atoll or for five years, whichever is shorter," Wilson said.

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