County misled on radiation Rules changed after site got OK

November 22, 1992|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

County officials were caught by surprise last week when they learned of radioactive contamination on the 85-acre tract of land where County Executive Robert R. Neall had hoped to build a new Detention Center.

After all, they received assurances from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when they bought the property on New Ordnance Road in Glen Burnie 12 years ago that it met all standards. And it did, according to an NRC survey done at that time.

But back in 1977, when the NRC performed the survey and cleared the land for sale, there were no guidelines for radiation in the soil. The guidelines were drafted four years later, shortly after the county bought the land.

The NRC survey only checked the warehouses at the U.S. Army General Services Depot where barrels of thorium nitrate had been stored. Those buildings were decontaminated by workmen who cut out sections of the floor and walls that contained high levels of radiation.

No one bothered with the soil beneath the buildings, which had been contaminated by thorium nitrate that leaked from corroded storage barrels.

When county officials first considered the site for the new detention center last March, the NRC, based on its earlier survey, assured County Council members that the land was clean.

But Council Chairman David G. Boschert demanded that information in writing and the federal agency performed another survey.

This time, investigators found thorium concentrations that significantly exceeded the 1981 guidelines. Problem areas were found in crawl spaces under eight of the nine warehouses and around concrete loading docks connected to the buildings.

The NRC considers excessive anything above 10 picocuries per gram of soil (pCi/g). The survey found soil around the buildings contained concentrations as high as 126 pCi/g. The concentrations in crawl-space samples went to 640 pCi/g.

Those levels are significant enough to pose health risks, said Albert Donnay, staff scientist for the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a non-profit organization based in Takoma Park that studies nuclear contamination issues.

Thorium has a higher energy radiation level than most radioactive isotopes, he said. A person can be exposed merely by standing near it.

"You don't have to eat it, you don't have to breathe it, you just have to stand on top ot the soil and you get the dose," Mr. Donnay said.

"The problem with radiation is that even small doses are significant," said Diane D'arrigo of the Nuclear Information and Research Service in Washington. "Every exposure increases a person's risk."

In fact, low-level doses of radiation can be more harmful than high levels. Low doses damage cells rather than kill them, allowing them to reproduce abnormally, Ms. D'arrigo said.

During the past few decades, the NRC has been known to inadequately decommission storage sites for nuclear material , Mr. Donnay said.

A recent General Accounting Office report took the NRC to task for sloppy record-keeping and failing to thoroughly survey buildings for possible contamination. Since then, the NRC began re-examining sites it previously had cleared.

It appears that the first survey of the Ordnance Road warehouses was characteristically haphazard, Mr. Donnay said.

"They sort of proceeded with a rip-out bar in one hand and a Geiger counter in the other," he said.

So how much is this going to cost to clean up and who is going to pay for it?

It could run in the neighborhood of $100 million if the buildings are contaminated, Mr. Donnay said. But that figure would drop sharply if the cleanup involved only the contaminated soil, he added.

"We're talking about taking up a lot of soil and disposing it at the rate of $100 per cubic foot," Mr. Donnay said. He estimated the cost at about $24 million.

In the minds of county officials, there is only one answer to the question of financial responsibility: It isn't going to be us.

Mr. Boschert has written to the four members of Congress who represent the county asking for their assistance in securing federal money for the cleanup. County Executive Robert R. Neall also wants the federal government to pick up the bill.

The county has not ruled out the site as a possible location for the new detention center.

Aides to Congressman Wayne T. Gilchrest "are looking into it right now," said his special assistant, Perry Weed.

"We need immediately to find out how severe the health risk is," he said. "Is there an immediate health threat up there? And, if there is, maybe it would qualify for some sort of emergency treatment."

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