Apr 25, 2013 - Issue 514

 BlackCommentator.com: What a Difference a Word Makes - Solidarity America - By John Funiciello - BC Columnist

Suppose you had a radiation problem and wanted to skirt the rules and regulations so you didn’t actually have to do anything about proper disposal or treatment.

If you were the federal government, you might want to consider just calling it something else or, in one case, raise the acceptable level. A New York citizens’ environmental group has said government is doing just that, in the case of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, in which hazardous waste is just called “industrial waste.”

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) this month said that the White House “has given final approval for dramatically raising permissible radioactive levels in drinking water and soil…what its proponents call a new normal” and what PEER calls “a public health policy only Doctor Strangelove could embrace.”

The group’s membership consists of professional, scientific, and technical workers in governmental agencies for environmental research and regulation at state and federal levels across the country. It allows its membership, through PEER, to speak publicly about their concerns. In this case, PEER refers to the so-called Protective Action Guides or PAGs, which are issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The guides tell emergency management personnel and individuals how to respond to dangerous situations, but the group says that the new PAGs allow radiation cleanup “many times more lax than anything EPA has ever before accepted.”

For example, the new guides, given White House approval on April 5, allow long-term public exposure to radiation in amounts as high as 2,000 millirems. In effect, said PEER, this would increase “a longstanding 1-in-10,000 person cancer rate to a rate of 1-in-23 persons exposed over a 30-year period…” The PAGs are much less specific regarding permissible levels of radiation in drinking water, merely declaring that the new guidelines would give officials more “flexibility” in any area where an incident or accident has occurred.

All of this is occurring during a time of transition in the EPA, where the agency’s administrator, Lisa Jackson, is scheduled to be replaced by assistant administrator for air and radiation, Gina McCarthy, whose nomination could be confirmed by the Senate within a matter of days or when senators return from a recess on May 4. During early hours of her confirmation hearing, McCarthy was described as someone who has worked well with industry and government, having worked for two Republican governors in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

PEER is not enthusiastic about Obama’s choice for the new EPA administrator, noting that the new PAGs are the product of her work in the agency. “If this (the new PAGs) typifies the environmental leadership we can expect from Ms. McCarthy, then EPA is in for a long, dirty slog,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “No compelling justification is offered for increasing the cancer deaths of Americans innocently exposed to corporate miscalculations several hundred-fold.”

But that’s what the administration is proposing. Why would it do that? One can only speculate, because most of the rationale for any governmental action is usually lost in the morass of bureaucratic rhetoric and it is usually taken to further enrich a wealthy campaign donor or a corporation with very deep campaign-money pockets.

Considering the state of the environment, in general, and considering that much of the toxic load on the earth and all of its creatures (including humans, of course), as well as most of the degradation of all of the earth’s systems, are man-made, or man-caused, some rather cynical political observers might survey the scene and say, “It’s too late to really do something about it, so let’s just adjust the numbers. The people will just have to get used to it.”

Could this be the rationale? That we have gone so far along exploiting the planet’s natural resources and maintaining dependence on fossil fuels to such an extent that the powers that be have found it impossible to shift gears from the current plunge to a safer more efficient and more sustainable way of life? The probable answer is that they can’t change now and maintain the same level of profit (that is, most of the wealth that is mined from nature) and they are not willing to lose that flow of money. When Corporate America looks at the problem, they see too much uncertainty in change to guarantee that they will continue taking most of the substance of the earth and its people to itself. To be sure, there are countries that are making the transition to a more sustainable world, but the U.S. is not one of them.

In moving toward a greatly increased tolerance for the nuclear, chemical, or biological load of toxins in our environment, the regulators seem to be throwing up their hands and moving toward the position of much of the Republican Party, which tells the American people that climate change (global warming) is a hoax, that the U.S. needs to eliminate regulations to allow Corporate America to do whatever it wishes, and that things are going along quite well. Things are not going well and we do need radical changes in the way we live and we need a long lead time to make those changes, because our dire circumstances did not happen overnight. No “leaders” are leading and they are not going about the country making speeches about the ways we have to change. And they have few, if any, solutions… just band-aids for the ills that seem acute at any given time.

The EPA’s move backwards in regulating radioactive content in the water we drink and the soil, out of which comes the food that we feed ourselves and our families, is a dangerous sign that our elected officials don’t want to confront the very uncomfortable truth that the American way of life is unsustainable and that we need to make major adjustments, now.

Internal EPA documents obtained by PEER “show that under the updated PAG a single glass of water could give a lifetime’s permissible exposure. In addition, it would allow long-term cleanup limits thousands of times more lax than anything EPA has ever before accepted. These new limits would cause a cancer in as much as every fourth person exposed.”

From a citizens environmental group, the Croton Watershed Clean Water Alliance (CWCWC) in New York State, we are warned of another industrial time bomb, hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a method of drilling for oil and natural gas that uses millions of gallons of fresh water mixed with chemicals to free the gas that is trapped in various shale deposits a mile or two under the ground. Problem is, as CWCWC and other groups have pointed out, the fracking water not only contains a cocktail of chemicals (which are considered proprietary by the oil and gas companies, so they won’t tell us what they are), but when most of the contaminated water is brought back to the surface, it also contains radiation, which occurs naturally deep underground.

CWCWC recently congratulated the Westchester County Board of Legislators for adopting a law that “prohibit(s) the sale, application, and disposal of waste products from natural gas drilling anywhere in the county,” and that includes attempts to “treat” water in municipal treatment plants for removal of dangerous substances, including radiation.  This is important, says the group, because “radioactive fracking waste from gas drilling can potentially cause irreversible damage to water, air, land and food supplies.”

Fracking waste is hazardous, exceeding the legal criteria for hazardous waste classification, according to CWCWC, and it is categorized as “industrial” under federal and state laws as a result of special exemptions given to the oil and gas industry. One of the first acts of Dick Cheney as vice president in the Bush-Cheney Administration was to meet in secret with “energy companies,” one of which certainly was his company, Halliburton. No one was able to find out what Cheney and the oil and gas corporations discussed or planned (he stonewalled the issue through two terms), but one of the outcomes was an exemption from the clean air and clean water laws of the U.S. A simple change of a word, from “hazardous” to “industrial,” and the fracking problem seemed to be solved, at least, for the corporations.

It should not be too surprising that President Obama would allow more lax rules about contamination of our air and water. After all, he said that all options are on the table for making the U.S. energy independent, a virtual impossibility, because the oil from virtually any country is sold on the world market and rarely benefits the people of the producing nation so directly.

As well, there are powerful interests who have been pressing politicians for the past four or five decades to produce power with nuclear reactors...more than we now have. They continue to do that and they have their stable of politicians in high office who will do their bidding. There might be a leak here, a small accident there, but look at the power these plants produce, we are told. They already have forgotten Fukushima, because it’s already two years since it happened. Medical researchers have recently pointed out that there is an increase in thyroid problems in infants on the U.S. West Coast from the radioactive drift from the Japan disaster.

In addition, President Obama is apparently backtracking on a pledge he made a few years ago that he would not add or improve the U.S. nuclear arsenal, by preparing to spend $10 billion on the nation’s European nuclear cache in several countries, and spending another $1 billion to put fins on nuclear weapons that essentially turn them into missiles.

We have fracking, aging nuclear reactors scattered about the country, and the planned improvement of nuclear weaponry, all of which are likely to add, at one time or another, to the background radiation that the planet must learn to tolerate. It’s no wonder the government wants to loosen up the regulations, as demanded by their friends in the corporations. It affects every American and everyone and every creature on earth. It is intolerable. It will, however, be a constant assault, unless and until people stand up by the tens of thousands and demand the needed change.

BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.