Radon and Wastewater

BiosolidsOn Tuesday the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) will hold a public hearing for the purpose of enacting a new regulation concerning radium in land application of biosolids. I tried to find out from their Web site and Facebook and Twitter pages about the ruling, but it was not prominently displayed. Finally I found it here: Licensing of Radioactive Material (32 Ill. Adm. Code 330.40) But if this is an important change and it requires public input and will affect several communities throughout Illinois and taxpayers through their utility bills, why is IEMA not announcing it through their news channels?  Instead I found out about it through a presentation given last week in Geneva (WARNING: GEEK level of post is 10 and apologize if I made a mistake on the tech info – this post is based on my notes):

Background of Radium Regulations in Illinois

Uranium 238 was produced when the universe was created. This material decays to Radium 226 and Radium 222. Radium 226 will not decay significantly in our lifetimes; however Radium 222 decays to Po 218, Pb 214, Bi 214, Po 214. During the decay process, Radon gas is also created.

While drinking water standards were first established in 1914 and later revised in 1925, 1946, and 1962, it wasn't until the 1976 amendment of the Safe Drinking Water Act that radionuclides were regulated. At this time, the rules applied to Radium 226 and Radium 228.

In 1991, USEPA revised this 1974 act to raise the limits from 5 to 19 pCi/L. However this generated a lot of discussion and research. In the year 2000, USEPA finalized their rule leaving the standard limit in drinking water at 5 pCi/L for these contaminants. But this would allow 5 pCi/L for each, not a combined measurement.

In 1983, on the wastewater side in Illinois, the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) approved the land application of biosolids program. In 1984 IEPA and IEMA created a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) regarding this program. The MOA said the residuals in sludges must be less than 5 pCi/gm and allowed land application as long as levels in the soils did not exceed this limit. Land application would still be allowed for levels between 5 pCi/gm and 50 pCi/gm but only if the Radon in the soil measured below 0.1 pCi/gm. For land application above 50, the disposal method had to be reviewed by IEMA, but could still occur if Radon levels in the soil remained below 0.5 pCi/gm.

What happened next was this MOA was never enforced by the IEPA through the sludge permits until 2004. The city of Joliet was one of the first to see this requirement in their new permit. They appealed and a decision was rendered in May 2009 when it was decided the MOA was in violation of the Illinois procedures act since IEMA did not go through the requirements of that act so the terms of the MOA could not be implemented as a rule. So IEMA began steps to formalize the terms of the agreement into an actual rule.

Why is Radon Bad?

Before going much further, it is important to have a little background on the enemy here: Radon. Radon, as stated above, is a byproduct of the decay of Radium. The problem with Radon is that it has been found to cause lung cancer. The EPA estimates that more than 20,000 deaths per year from lung cancer are due to Radon in our homes. The average Radon level in a U.S. home is 0.25 pCi/L which can also be expressed as 300 mrem/yr. 

Radon is easily dissipated through the air so it didn't really become an issue until we began sealing up our homes to be more energy efficient. This trapped the Radon in our homes and gave it more opportunity to get into and damage our lungs. Building codes have been created to help prevent this from happening. And there are removal systems that can be installed if Radon levels are high in a home.

The bottom line is we don't want Radon in our homes; building codes exist to prevent this from happening; and there are removal systems available if Radon is found in a home. (This is why everyone should be testing their homes for Radon.) So IEMA is pursuing this rule with the focus that it is necessary to prevent Radon from entering homes and reduce lung cancer in humans.

What's wastewater got to do with it?

Wastewater got involved in all this because the Radium that EPA requires to be removed from drinking water ends up at the wastewater plant. This happens when the water plant discharges their waste from the treatment process. It travels down the sewer to the wastewater plant where it settles out in the sludges or biosolids. The wastewater plant then collects these solids and must dispose of them in some manner. A typical method is land application or dumping it on farm fields and having the farmer till the biosolids into the soil. This process is regulated and permitted by the EPA. But because in Illinois IEMA regulates radioactive materials, that agency is concerned about the levels of Radium in the biosolids applied to fields.

So What's the Problem?

Like most regulations, they sound good – the government is trying to set rules to make sure we don't get hurt. IEMA is just trying to make sure people have a reduced risk of exposure to Radon. The problem comes in when there is a high cost associated with compliance, and there is not good reason for the limits. This is the most challenging part of making any rule. It is easy to set a rule that places full restriction on something – that way no one ever has to determine or think about a risk. An example here would be make everyone build their house ten feet off the ground. Then no problem – we never have to worry about Radon again. This is called going to extremes. Usually the government doesn't do this; instead they try to study the issue and decide upon a reasonable limit based on scientific information. Any other method of setting rules is based on speculation and can lead to a significant waste of taxpayer dollars.

ALARA is the method by which radiation levels are to be set that takes into account science and cost. If this method is applied here, the costs are orders of magnitude higher than what is mandated by ALARA. Eli Port, an expert on radiation who spoke, said this new rule could cost communities millions of dollars.

So let's look at the science behind Radon levels. One hundred mrem/year of Radon is the current limit in nuclear safety regulations. (Cleanups must achieve a 25 mrem/yr level.) But IEMA is requiring a 10 mrem/yr dose limit or 10% of the total recommended by the safety regulations. By comparison, a person normally living in Illinois spending one month in Denver will increase their annual level by 15 mrem. Or a person flying at 30,000 feet for 20 hours a year will experience an increase of 15 mrem. However neither of these activities are regulated to prevent exposure – nor is the public even told about this risk.

The Resulting Limits

The IEMA ruling will results in the following:

  • Communities with less than 5 pCi/gm in their biosolids to land apply as long as the increase level in the soil does not go above 0.4 pCi/gm (the USEPA sets this limit at 5 pCi/gm).
  • Communities with readings between 5 pCi/gm and 50 pCi/gm can dispose of the material in a landfill but it must have a 10-foot cover and "reasonable assurance that the exhalation rate of radon to the atmosphere, or into a dwelling, will not exceed an average rate of 5 pCi per square meter per second; and reasonable assurance against accidental intrusion into the residuals or sludge in the future."
  • Communities with readings greater than 50 must have their method of disposal reviewed and approved by IEMA, and the material must be placed in an out of state landfill or licensed low-level facility and both parties must register with IEMA.

IEMA has also expressed the need for this limit in order to protect anyone who might not comply with building codes when they build a home. They are worried someone might choose to neglect the code and build on topsoil and not mitigate for Radon. Joliet and other communities are replying that they already deal with this risk by enforcing building codes. No one has testified they have built a home on topsoil – this is always removed prior to construction. So there is a concern by all communities affected that their citizens will end up paying exorbitant utility fees to deal with an issue that could be better dealt with existing regulations. And that the limits set do not accurately reflect an actual health risk.

Community Positions and Final Costs

Studies and research by the communities are showing a need for a 1.0 pCi/gm limit while IEMA is planning on enforcing the 0.4 pCi/gm limit. Communities involved have also been concerned because the hearings have not really open to the public; instead they take place in a locked-down facility. In order to attend, you have to register at their facility, be escorted to the room, and if you want to leave, you have to ask to be escorted out. Other comments regarding the hearing have been that it is primarily a Northern Illinois issue, but IEMA is requiring everyone to travel to Springfield for the hearing. And the cities involved have requested a stakeholder's meeting but none have been scheduled.

In the end, if IEMA is successful with passing this rule with the limits they chose, some communities in Illinois are faced with having to either install Radium reduction facilities at their water or wastewater plant to reduce the amount of material. And these communities will have to find a landfill that will take radioactive waste and pay to haul it to that site. It could also be an issue for communities that have Radium in their drinking water but not of a high enough level to require removal because this Radium also finds its way to the wastewater plant.

Some increased costs that have been reported are:

  • $10 million over 20 years if land applied (due to need to find more farmland to avoid exceeding levels)
  • $48 million if landfilled
  • $58 million if landfilled outside of the state

The other issues that have come up as a result of all this is that not everyone has been notified the original MOA is no longer valid and the entire matter has given the impression that land application is not a good choice. 

The Next Step

Our country is not in a good financial position right now. There is even more need to carefully consider how we spend the small amount of revenue we already have. Can we really afford to raise fees and taxes on people who are struggling financially if we cannot justify or prove the actual risk? In a way we are asking what safety factor can our country afford to pay for and are we willing to accept?

For those who are interested in the hearing, below are the details:

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

9:00 AM to 12:00 PM and 1:00 to 4:00 PM
Illinois Emergency Management Agency
2200 South Dirksen Parkway
Springfield, Illinois
Full disclosure: I work for the city of Geneva, one of the possible 110 communities to be directly affected by this ruling. Our city testified at the first hearing held last year. However, all information and opinions expressed on this blog are entirely my own and not those of my employer.