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Saturday, March 13, 2004



Radioactive dumping
is under city review

A truck was allowed to unload
despite triggering an alarm


A top city health official says he will review why a trash truck that set off a radiation monitor alarm twice at Keehi Transfer Station yesterday was allowed to dump its load anyway, breaking disposal procedure.

Several refuse workers, who drive through the station daily, allege that the lapse was not a first.

City Environmental Services Director Frank Doyle said the source of the radioactivity yesterday was linked to a worker on the truck who had undergone a medical procedure that included a radioactive substance. The radioactivity did not present a public health risk, he said.

Refuse collector Hensley Lopez confirmed his medical test Monday included a small dosage of the radioactive substance thalium-201. But he also said that he had driven past the radiation monitor from Tuesday to Thursday without alarms sounding.

"I'm sure that radiation couldn't hide in my body," he said. "I was kind of concerned that I hadn't set it off earlier."

Doyle and others said the discrepancy, which may have been affected by how fast Lopez was driving past the monitor on the different days, is not cause for concern because the radiation levels at issue are so low.

Doyle also said the station's radiation monitor underwent a quarterly check Thursday and was found to be operating correctly.

"The bottom line is that we normally hold the truck there. ... In this case the load was dumped," he said. "I've got to find out why that was done. I'll have to follow up and I will."

Rather than accepting the truck's trash, supervisors at the transfer station should have called in a city contractor charged with finding and containing the load's radioactive materials.

Ronald Frick, of Gamma Corp., which handles radioactive trash for the island's two transfer stations, said he had not handled any calls at Keehi yesterday.

Once isolated, contaminated waste at the station is supposed to be stored until it is no longer radioactive, Doyle said.

Health officials say radiation alarms at the stations average about one per month.

But several refuse workers say there have been similar incidents when radiation alarms were set off and supervisors told drivers to dump the load anyway.

"Everybody has set them off at one time or another," said Lopez, a 16-year veteran of the Refuse Division. He said he has dumped materials that set off radiation alarms at Keehi three to four times over the last 12 months.

Mike Hikalea, a city garbage collector for 25 years, estimated that three to four of his trucks each month have shown traces of radiation, and none of them have been isolated.

Almost all of the Keehi station's materials are sent to Kapolei's HPOWER plant, which has its own monitors and will not accept materials with radioactive traces.

But until the end of the month, while the facility is closed for maintenance, the station's trash is being sent to the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill, Doyle said.

Russell Takata, program manager with the state Health Department's Noise, Radiation and Indoor Air Quality Branch, said most materials with detectable radiation at the station are remnants of at-home medical doses for cancer or other diseases.

He said the radiation levels are extremely low and pose no threat.

Lopez's garbage truck arrived at the Keehi Transfer Station about 11:30 a.m. yesterday after running a Hawaii Kai route.

City administrators learned about yesterday's lapse because the truck's driver and crew went to the Kalihi Kai Fire Station to check their radiation levels after dumping their truck's trash.

"We're exposed to so many different elements," said driver Narcis Salera. "Over the long term, the effects of being hit with radiation periodically, it's just like the asbestos cases. That's the concern that we have."

However, Frick said: "We've calculated the potential doses to the (refuse truck) driver. Compared to what people are getting (on average daily) ... it's small compared to that."

Small amounts of radiation were found on all three men who were in the truck, prompting fire officials to call in the Health Department.

Takata's hazardous-materials crew later determined Lopez as the cause.

Takata said the other men had likely come in contact with Lopez's radioactive sweat, which is why they also had small amounts of radiation on their bodies.

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