MAC: Mines and Communities

The Million Year Baby: In Argentina Uranium-Polluted Water Is "Legally Safe to Drink"

Published by MAC on 2005-08-15
Source: ipsnews

The Million Year Baby

Finally, when uranium has passed from the ground, through the mines and mills, and is burned in nuclear reactors, there remains the even more intractable problem of "storing" or neutralising millions of tonnes of radioactive detritus. Uranium-dependent nations look to the US - as the repository of the largest amount of such wastes - to show how it should be done. But in Argentina (just one example) there isn't even agreement on the standards which should be observed regarding uranium-polluted water .

As the US embarks on a new era of nuclear power plant construction, the ugly truth is that there is no generally-agreed safe solution. The US administration is proposing to create a "facility" on Indigenous territory in the Yucca mountains, Nevada to which wastes will be trucked through no less than 44 states. The US EPA claims the world's most massive radioactive dump will protect future generations from damaging consequences over the next milion years (sic). But the state of Nevada, and many others, are vehemently opposed. Senator Harry Reid, Democrat minority leader in the US Senate calls the proposal "voodoo science", claiming it will lower existring groundwater standards, since the wastes will sit atop vital aquifers.

ARGENTINA: Uranium-Polluted Water Is "Legally Safe to Drink"

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 24 (IPS) - Laboratory testing ordered by an Argentine court concluded that the water consumed by close to a million people living near a nuclear facility is contaminated with uranium and not fit for human consumption.

However, there is every indication that the residents affected will be defeated in the legal proceedings underway for the last five years.

On Wednesday, environmental activists from Greenpeace Argentina dressed up as waiters and attempted to serve "uranium-contaminated" mineral water to Minister of Federal Planning, Public Investment and Services Julio de Vido outside the headquarters of the ministry, which oversees the country's nuclear activities.

The issue goes back to 1958, when the Ezeiza Atomic Centre (CAE) -- located 40 kilometres from the Argentine capital and next to the international airport of the same name -- began to bury radioactive waste despite the protests of nearby residents who feared the contamination of the Puelches aquifer, the source of their drinking water.

Argentina has two fully functioning nuclear plants, Atocha I and Embalse, under the direction of the National Atomic Energy Commission and agencies for the development of nuclear technology applied to health care, agriculture and industry. The CAE is one of these agencies.

Despite continued protests, no action was taken until 2000, when a federal prosecutor saw a complaint published in the letters to the editor section of a Buenos Aires newspaper and proceeded to file a suit in the federal court of Judge Alberto Santamarina.

The letter had been written by Valentín Stiglitz, president of the Association Against Environmental Pollution in the Buenos Aires district of Esteban Echeverría.

In his letter to the editor, Stiglitz called attention once again to the danger of uranium contamination of the water from the Puelches aquifer, resulting from the CAE's burial of radioactive waste nearby, a practice that continued until the late 1990s.

Esteban Echeverría, Ezeiza, Montegrande and la Matanza are heavily populated working-class districts of Greater Buenos Aires that have all been affected by the pollution. Claudio Carusso, a member of the Association, told IPS that the number of people endangered is close to one million.

After two years of struggling with the lack of funds to pay for the water to be tested abroad, the judge contracted geologist Fernando Díaz of the University of Buenos Aires to carry out the testing. He submitted his results in late December 2004.

A copy of the study, more than 600 pages in length, was anonymously deposited in the mailbox of the Esteban Echeverría headquarters of the Association, said Carusso, which is how the local residents learned of its results.

The study determined "the existence of significant contamination from the activities of the Ezeiza Atomic Centre, which affected the underground water in the region to a degree that prevents it from being suitable for drinking by humans."

Díaz concluded that the water in 74 percent of the 46 wells tested was not fit for drinking, with uranium concentrations of between 50 and 80 micrograms per litre.

Two other radioactive agents, radon and strontium, were also detected, along with nitrate levels far greater than those permitted for human consumption.

When the study was made public, it prompted a reaction from the Argentine Nuclear Regulatory Authority (ARN), which is responsible for monitoring activities in the industry. A statement released by ARN ensured that regular testing was carried out in the area around the atomic centre, and the results "comply with Argentine standards in this respect."

ARN also stated that the proportion of uranium in the water also met World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, and that the drinking water in the region was therefore "radiologically fit for human consumption.

This point constitutes the crux of the issue, noted Carusso. The WHO establishes 15 micrograms of uranium per litre of water as the maximum for human consumption. But Argentina's hazardous waste legislation sets the threshold at 100 micrograms per litre.

"The ARN protects itself by saying that the levels are within legal limits, despite the maximum amounts allowed by the WHO and by many other countries, which are between 20 and 25 micrograms per litre," said Carusso. "Obviously, the law needs to be changed."

Local residents are also angered by the fact that the judge failed to take precautionary measures once he was in possession of the test results. "On the contrary, it seems that they did everything possible to keep the study from getting out," said Carusso.

Judge Santamarina's secretary, Guillermo González, told IPS that preventative measures were in fact ordered. However, he failed to specify what these measures were, and merely referred to a copy of a one-page press release prepared by the court, which also leaves out any details of the purported measures, as he himself admitted.

The communique states that "the testing that reports the presence of radioactive elements in the underground water is preliminary," and that "complementary measures" had been requested from a team of specialists in various disciplines, who were to draft a counter-report.

The court also forwarded Díaz's study to the Ministry of Health (which oversees the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources) and to the corresponding provincial authorities in Buenos Aires, "for any health-related efforts that may eventually be entailed."

Environmental Secretary Atilio Savino said he was "not worried", because the ARN had established that the complaints were unfounded.

Dozens of environmental organisations are backing the campaign waged by the residents of Esteban Echeverría, and will be taking part on Apr. 1 in a demonstration aimed at drawing attention to the issue and demanding the adoption of measures to protect the public from the pollution.

Juan Carlos Villalonga, the director of campaigns at Greenpeace Argentina, commented to IPS that "the battle between the interests of the health of the citizens and the nuclear industry is very uneven." He also admitted that he is afraid the ruling in the trial currently underway will go against the local residents.

Villalonga maintained that even if the exact concentrations of uranium are not known, it is still obvious that the water is highly toxic and harmful to human health.

When Argentina set the maximum allowable limit for uranium at 100 micrograms per litre of water, it based its decision on the legislation used in Canada, a country with significant natural deposits of this heavy metal, Villalonga said.

However, Canada subsequently lowered the limit to 20 micrograms, while Argentina kept it at 100.

"Argentina's legislation is outdated, and is designed to shelter a dirty industry," he said. Unfortunately, though, it is still the law of the land, and will most likely lead to defeat for the victims of uranium contamination.

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