The U.S. Air Force, faced with the reality that low-level radioactive radium isn’t going to go away in anyone’s lifetime, is taking a responsible course by burying it on a 15-acre site at the old McClellan Air Force Base.
The process began earlier this month and will continue for several years, a legacy of World War II and the Cold War. The radium-226 was painted on aircraft gauges to make them glow in the dark.
A Center for Investigative Reporting article that appeared earlier this month in The Bee said the Air Force “is burying radioactive waste on the site it supposedly is cleaning up, bypassing state environmental regulations because it is on federal land.”
While state environmental law does not apply on federal land, the Air Force reached the decision to bury the dirt on the base after more than 10 years of debate, discussion, and meetings with federal, state and local officials, and nearby residents.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the decision. The California Department of Toxic Substances Control concurred in that decision, and the California Regional Water Quality Control Board and Department of Public Health reviewed it.
As it is envisioned, a person standing on top of the landfill, which will be sealed, won’t receive radiation beyond that which naturally occurs.
“We don’t see where it poses a risk,” Steve Woods, head of the state health department’s Division of Food, Drug and Radiation Safety, told The Bee’s editorial board.
“Certainly, what they’re doing at McClellan is safe,” added Raymond Leclerc, the Toxic Substances Control official who oversees that department’s role in the site.
Although Sacramento officials remain skeptical, the Air Force has agreed to retain responsibility for inspecting the site even after it transfers the land to the city of Sacramento or other owners.
California law complicates the problem. Although we Californians produced more than our share of radioactive waste, no state landfill is licensed to accept the radioactive waste.
The Air Force could have trucked the dirt to states that have weaker environmental laws. But officials must dispose of 360,000 cubic yards, roughly 10,000 truckloads bound for Idaho or some other state, at an estimated cost of $300 million, all the while emitting carbon and risking spills.
Given the alternatives, the Air Force is taking the responsible course at McClellan.