Air Force Sends Radioactive Material Too Hot for California Landfills to Idaho

Monday, November 12, 2012
US Ecology Grand View, Idaho Facility (photo: US Ecology)

When the U.S. Air Force couldn’t get permission from the California government to stash radioactive waste from Central California’s McClellan Air Force Base in a local landfill, it didn’t have to look far for an out-of-state solution.


It sent the residue from radium-illuminated aircraft instruments to a hazardous waste dump operated by US Ecology in Grand View, Idaho, 70 miles from Boise, according to the publication California Watch. Contact with radium can increase the risk of lymphoma, bone cancer and leukemia.


The Air Force had lobbied for months to have the material labeled as naturally-occurring waste in order to qualify for disposal at Clean Harbors’ Buttonwillow landfill in the Bakersfield-area. McClellan AFB, which was deactivated in 2001, has already shipped 22,000 tons of soil contaminated with radioactive residue out of state as it prepares the former base for private development. The residue is believed to be from cleanup efforts related to radioactive paint used more than 50 years ago on glow-in-the-dark dials and gauges.


The California Department of Public Health wasn’t buying the explanation that the waste was naturally occurring, like mining waste, which would have reduced regulatory oversight, and it was backed up by the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. California Watch cited a September 2011 memo that was explicit. “When the material was removed from the aircraft instrument and improperly disposed to the ground surface at Dudley Blvd. (at McClellan), it was no longer exempt from regulation, nor ‘incidentally concentrated,’ ” department engineering geologist Stephen Pay wrote.


They recommended the dirt be sent to a licensed low-level radioactive waste-disposal facility. The Air Force appealed to Governor Jerry Brown to overrule his state’s regulators, but he refused in June. 


The last time radioactive material was sent to Buttonwillow, in the late 1990s, it came from the World War II Manhattan Project. U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer of California was reportedly none too pleased when she pointed out to a Senate committee in 2000, “The facility sits atop aquifers that supply water to the Central Valley of California.” 


When contacted by California Watch, Idaho officials said they didn’t know the material’s back story, so they ran tests at the landfill and decided the low level of “natural” radiation was legal by their standards and not subject to further regulation.


Dump site operator US Ecology was fined $184,400 in May by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for disposing of 10,000 pounds each of aluminum, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, diethanolamine, ethylene glycol, manganese, nickel, nitric acid, selenium, silver, thallium and zinc at its Grand View site three years ago.

-Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Air Force Ships Calif. Radioactive Waste to Idaho Landfill (by Katharine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith, California Watch)

Idaho Site Fined $184K for Failure to Report Disposal of Hazardous Waste (by George Prentice, Boise Weekly)


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