Fallout

Newly released documents indicate the Navy dumped far more nuclear waste than it's ever acknowledged in a major commercial fishery just 30 miles west of San Francisco. Why won't the government even study the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site?

The barrels captured the attention of then-U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, a San Francisco Democrat, who held the first congressional hearing on the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site in 1976. At the time, EPA officials told Congress that the situation was potentially dangerous and would require more study. Then the Farallones faded from the spotlight.

Four years later, a group of environmentalists enlisted the support of Quentin Kopp, then a San Francisco supervisor, who rallied supervisors from several Northern California counties and formed the Ad Hoc Coastal Counties Supervisors Committee on Nuclear Waste. The group, which included Barbara Boxer, a Marin supervisor at the time, immediately engaged in battle with federal agencies, including the EPA, over information the supervisors deemed "incomplete, conflicting, and inaccurate."

Kopp introduced a resolution by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors calling for the release of EPA reports on the Farallon waste site. Robert Dyer, head of the EPA's Office of Radiation Programs, told reporters that he was a "one-man show" who had had neither the time nor the resources during the previous three years to complete reports on the Farallon waste site.

Dr. Herman Karl headed a USGS study aimed at locating 
barrels of nuclear waste at the bottom of the sea.
Paul Trapani
Dr. Herman Karl headed a USGS study aimed at locating barrels of nuclear waste at the bottom of the sea.
Dr. Herman Karl headed a USGS study aimed at locating 
barrels of nuclear waste at the bottom of the sea.
Paul Trapani
Dr. Herman Karl headed a USGS study aimed at locating barrels of nuclear waste at the bottom of the sea.

Later in 1980, another, more heated, congressional hearing was held in San Francisco. Included in the mix were then-Congressmen John Burton and Leon Panetta, and the stakes were higher than ever. At the time, the EPA and other government agencies were studying the possibility of resuming ocean dumping of nuclear waste. Needless to say, the long-term safety of the nation's largest sea dump was key to both sides of the debate.

Department of Energy officials told Congress that the Farallon ocean-floor dump contained only "low-level" waste, and that "natural dilution and dispersal" would result in safe levels of radiation in the environment.

The first assertion was untrue, and the second, unsubstantiated.Government officials had already owned up to having dumped "trace amounts" of elements, including plutonium, that were not considered "low-level." In fact, in the same hearing, the EPA's David Hawkins gave this vague statement on the matter: "[The containers in the Farallones] might have included highly radioactive materials, but not high-level wastes. It [sic] is a special definition for high-level waste." Hawkins was not asked for, and did not give, such a definition.

In the end, the congressmen verbally spanked various bureaucrats for the dearth of information on the situation at the bottom of the sea near San Francisco. Everyone seemed to agree that the matter should be studied more. It never really was.


One of the first men to take a serious look into the waste containers near the Farallones was the EPA radiation specialist, Robert Dyer. In 1974, Dyer and his crew surveyed the area, retrieved one of the barrels, and took it to Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York for a peek inside.

For safety reasons, Dyer purposely selected a barrel, located in the shallow part of the dump site, that seemed to be in particularly good condition. The barrel had no holes in it, was only minimally corroded, and wasn't leaking radioactive waste. Upon opening the drum, EPA scientists seemed somewhat puzzled to find cardboard, and concluded that the barrel likely contained trash that was either suspected of being contaminated, or was somehow accidentally tainted by short-lived radiation that had long since dissipated.

History would suggest a different explanation. NRDL records clearly spell out the lab's policy for handling radioactive waste. Among the regulations is the directive that liquid waste be placed in certain containers lined with cardboard until ultimate disposal. So, it's likely that the barrel came from the NRDL, and once contained radioactive liquid that either spilled or leaked out sometime prior to arriving at the Brookhaven Laboratory.

The barrel that apparently leaked its liquid radioactive contents into the ocean is hardly the worst of what's been seen at the Farallon dump site. The limited survey done by Dyer's team found the majority of containers at the dump to be imploded, corroded, and leaky.

In the late 1970s, two researchers from the University of Washington's College of Fisheries examined fish and sediment near the Farallon Islands in a study funded by the EPA. The pair found levels of plutonium and cesium in sediment near waste containers dumped by the Navy to be up to 20 times higher than what is expected because of fallout from above-ground nuclear weapons testing by the U.S., the former U.S.S.R., China, and other nuclear nations. Some of the organisms the researchers studied contained elevated levels of plutonium, although plutonium was not found in the edible, muscle parts of the fish. The finding suggested that plutonium was being picked up as the fish grazed in sediment for food, but was not being digested into the body of the fish, which is most of what humans eat.

In 1980, W. Jackson Davis, then an environmental scientist at UC Santa Cruz, found that data from the EPA's own reports on the Farallon waste site suggested a much greater potential for hazard than the government had previously admitted. Specifically, Davis found that plutonium levels in the samples collected by the EPA exceeded background levels by far more than had been reported. This prompted a war of interpretation between government and academic scientists that was never truly resolved.

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