Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Japanese agency labels radioactive leak 'serious'

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

TOKYO (AP) — Japan's nuclear regulator on Wednesday upgraded the rating of a leak of radiation-contaminated water from a tank at its tsunami-wrecked nuclear plant to a "serious incident" on an international scale, and it castigated the plant operator for failing to catch the problem earlier.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority's latest criticism of Tokyo Electric Power Co. came a day after the operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant acknowledged that the 300-ton leak probably began nearly a month and a half before it was discovered Aug. 19.

In a meeting with agency officials and experts Tuesday night, TEPCO said radioactivity near the leaky tank and exposure levels among patrolling staff started to increase in early July. There is no sign that anyone tried to find the source of that radioactivity before the leak was discovered.

On Wednesday, regulatory officials said TEPCO has repeatedly ignored their instructions to improve their patrolling procedures to reduce the risk of overlooking leakages. They said TEPCO lacked expertise and also underestimated potential impact of the leak because underground water is shallower around the tank than the company initially told regulators.

"Their instructions, written or verbal, have never been observed," Toyoshi Fuketa, a regulatory commissioner, said at the agency's weekly meeting Wednesday.

TEPCO acknowledged recently that only two workers were assigned to check all 1,000 storage tanks at the plant during their twice-daily, two-hour walk without carrying dosimeters, and their inspection results were not adequately recorded. TEPCO said it will increase patrolling staff to 50 from the current eight.

Earlier this week, Japan's industry minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, said the government will take over cleanup efforts and allocate funding for long-term contaminated water management projects.

The nuclear authority originally gave a Level 1 preliminary rating — an "anomaly," to the tank leak. Last week the authority proposed raising that to Level 3 — a "serious incident" — and it made that change after consulting with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The IAEA's ratings are designed to inform the international community, and changing them does not affect efforts to clean up the leak by the government and TEPCO. The 2011 Fukushima disaster itself was rated the maximum of 7 on the scale, the same as the 1986 Chernobyl accident.

"What's important is not the number itself but to give a basic idea about the extent of the problem," authority chairman Shunichi Tanaka said at a news conference after the agency's meeting. "I've seen reports that this is a dire situation but that's not true."

Tanaka said there is a much larger ongoing problem at the plant: massive amounts of contaminated ground water reaching the sea. But that problem cannot even be rated under the IAEA's International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale because it is unknown exactly how much ground water is escaping, how contaminated it is and what effect it is having on the sea and marine products.

Tanaka said TEPCO's handling of the water leaks was slow, illogical and lacked risk management. TEPCO has yet to determine the cause of the latest leak.

"I'm baffled," he said. "It may take time to stabilize the plant but we must put it on a right track."

TEPCO has recovered some of the water that leaked from the tank but says some of it may have reached the sea through a rainwater gutter. It says most of the leakage is believed to have seeped into the soil, triggering fresh concern of further contamination of underground water downstream.

TEPCO has built hundreds of tanks to hold radioactive water, some of which is ground water that made its way to the plant, but hundreds more tons of contaminated water are believed to be entering the sea each day.

The plant suffered triple meltdowns after the massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. TEPCO is putting tons of water into its reactors to cool them and is struggling to contain the resulting waste water.

What is a haboob?

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

A wall of dust hundreds of feet high rolled into the Phoenix area.

A wall of dust, hundreds of feet high, rolled into the Phoenix area with gusts of wind up to 62 mph on Monday evening.

Haboobs, as the dust-walls are known, only happen in Arizona, the Sahara desert and parts of the Middle East because of dry conditions and large amounts of sand, weather officials say.

The storms are known to halt airline flights, knock out power and turn swimming pools into mud pits.

Monday's haboob was part of a massive monsoon storm that downed trees and power lines, flooded roadways and left nearly 14,000 customers without power.

With a little over a month left before the official end of Arizona's monsoon season, storms like Monday's aren't unusual, but this one was much more widespread than others this summer, according to an official with the National Weather Service in Phoenix.

Arizona dust storms were called haboobs as far back as the October 1972 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The article, An American Haboob, written by Sherwood Idso of Tempe, examined a July 16, 1971, Valley dust storm that had the same characteristics as the ones in the Sudan.

The name comes from the Arabic word habb, meaning, "wind." It has many spellings, including: bub, habub, haboub, hubbob, and hubbub.

Huge California wildfire reverberates in 2 states

Story originally appeared on the Detroit News.

Fresno, Calif. — After burning for nearly a week on the edges of California’s Yosemite National Park, a massive wildfire of nearly 200 square miles has now crossed into it, and firefighters have barely begun to contain it.

The Yosemite Valley, the part of the park frequented by tourists and known around the world for such iconic sights as the Half Dome and El Capitan rock formations and Yosemite falls, remained open, clear of smoke and free from other signs of the fire that remained about 20 miles away.

But the blaze was reverberating around the region. It brought a governor’s declaration of emergency late Friday for San Francisco 150 miles away because of the threat the fire posed to utility transmission to the city, and caused smoke warnings and event cancellations in Nevada as smoke blew over the Sierra Nevada and across state lines.

And the fire had established at least a foothold in Yosemite, with at least 17 of its 196 square miles burning inside the park’s broad borders, in a remote area near Lake Eleanor where backpackers seek summer solace.

Park spokeswoman Kari Cobb said that the park had stopped issuing backcountry permits to backpackers and had warned those who already had them to stay out of the area.

She emphasized that the skies over Yosemite Valley were “crystal clear,” however.

“Right now there are no closures, and no visitor services are being affected in the park,” Cobb said. “We just have to take one day at a time.”

The blaze did, however, pose a threat to the lines and stations that pipe power to the city of San Francisco, so Gov. Jerry Brown, who had declared an emergency for the fire area earlier in the week, made the unusual move of doing the same for the city across the state.

San Francisco gets 85 percent of its water from the Yosemite-area Hetch Hetchy reservoir that is about 4 miles from the fire, though that had yet to be affected. But it was forced to shut down two of its three hydroelectric power stations in the area.

The city has so far been able to buy power on the open market and use existing supplies, but further disruptions or damage could have an effect, according to city power officials and the governor’s statement.

The declaration frees funding and resources to help the city and makes it eligible for more federal funds to help with power shortages and outages or water problems.

The 196-square-mile blaze was 5 percent contained and more than 2,000 firefighters were on the lines.

It continued to grow in several directions, although “most of the fire activity is pushing to the east right into Yosemite,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

In Nevada, the smoke forced officials in several counties to cancel outdoor school activities and issue health advisories, especially for people with respiratory problems.

The fire was threatening about 5,500 residences, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The blaze has destroyed four homes and 12 outbuildings in several different areas.

It closed a 4-mile stretch of State Route 120, one of three entrances into Yosemite on the west side. Two other western routes and an eastern route were open.

Officials issued voluntary evacuation advisories for two new towns — Tuolumne City, population 1,800, and Ponderosa Hills, a community of several hundred — which are about five miles from the fire line, Forest Service spokesman Jerry Snyder said.

A mandatory evacuation order remained in effect for part of Pine Mountain Lake, a summer gated community a few miles from the fire.

“It feels a little bit like a war zone, with helicopters flying overhead, bombers dropping retardant and 10 engine companies stationed on our street,” said Ken Codeglia, a retired Pine Mountain Lake resident who decided to stay to protect his house with his own hoses and fire retardant system. “But if the fire gets very hot and firefighters evacuate, I will run with them.”

Officials previously advised voluntary evacuations of more than a thousand other homes, several organized camps and at least two campgrounds in the area outside the park’s boundary.

More homes, businesses and hotels are threatened in nearby Groveland, a community of 600 about 5 miles from the fire and 25 miles from the entrance of Yosemite.

Usually filled with tourists, the streets are now swarming with firefighters, evacuees and news crews, said Doug Edwards, owner of Hotel Charlotte on Main Street.

“We usually book out six months solid with no vacancies and turn away 30-40 people a night. That’s all changed,” Edwards said. “All we’re getting for the next three weeks is cancellations. It’s a huge impact on the community in terms of revenue dollars.”

The fire is raging in the same region where a 1987 blaze killed a firefighter, burned hundreds of thousands of acres and forced several thousand people out of their homes.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Limit urged for cancer-causing chromium in California drinking water

Story originally appeared on LA Times.

State public health officials Thursday proposed the nation's first drinking-water standard for the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, at a level that elicited sighs of relief from municipal water managers and criticism from environmentalists.

At 10 parts per billion, the standard is 500 times greater than the non-enforceable public health goal set two years ago by the state Environmental Protection Agency.

The Department of Public Health described the proposed limit as a balance of public health, cost and treatment technology, but the agency acknowledged that economics were a key consideration.

Mark Starr, deputy director of the Center for Environmental Health, said the state's aim was to determine the lowest possible limit for the toxic heavy metal "given the technology available and the cost in order to protect public health."

Environmentalists said the 10 parts per billion standard — the equivalent of about 10 drops in an Olympic-sized pool — was far too high. "Five hundred times higher than safe levels is not protective of public health," said Avinash Kar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the state to issue the long-delayed standard.

Los Angeles, Burbank and Glendale already treat San Fernando Valley groundwater supplies contaminated by aerospace manufacturing to reduce hexavalent chromium levels to 5 parts per billion. That means the proposed new standard would not require them to adopt more intensive — and expensive — methods.

"We're happy and pleasantly surprised," said Ramon Abueg, a chief assistant general manager for Glendale Water and Power, which is treating about 15% of its water supply for the pollutant, also known as chromium 6.

"We took the most conservative approach until a standard could be set," he said. But Abueg added that the city, which has a sophisticated treatment system in place, would continue to adhere to its more stringent practice.

Chromium 6 occurs naturally but is also an industrial contaminant that gained a high profile after the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich" related how the desert town of Hinkley's water supply was fouled by mid-century releases from a nearby utility operation.

The chemical has been found in 51 of California's 58 counties, including Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino, according to the Department of Public Health. State officials said about 128 water systems would be required to treat their supplies under the new standard, at a total annual cost of $156 million.

Current state and federal standards do not distinguish between hexavalent chromium and trivalent chromium, an essential nutrient found naturally in foods. Instead, they combine the harmful and benign forms into a limit on total chromium, which the state puts at 50 parts per billion and the federal government at 100 parts per billion.

Although Los Angeles has been treating valley groundwater supplies and blending them with imported water to reduce chromium 6 levels to a lower level than the standard would require, Pankaj Parekh of the Department of Water and Power said the new standard was reasonable in light of scientific disagreement over what levels of the contaminant are harmful.

"What they've come out with soon might be a little conservative," he said, adding that the city wants to expand treatment of polluted groundwater to increase local water supplies.

Bill Mace, an assistant general manager at Burbank Water and Power, said his utility probably would consider adopting the less stringent standard proposed Thursday. "If we went to 10 [parts per billion], it would require us to blend less" with expensive treated water, cutting costs, he said.