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Radioactive Rubbish

Environmentalists express concern over nuclear waste in city landfills.

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Two of the four landfills in Tennessee that accept radioactive waste are located in Memphis, and that has some residents worried for their health.

Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell arranged a forum at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library last week after receiving complaints from citizens concerned about the state law that allows for dumping radioactive waste in the North and South Shelby County landfills.

The panel discussion included representatives from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) and the Sierra Club's local Chickasaw group.

TDEC utilizes the Bulk Survey for Release (BSFR) program to analyze materials with extremely low levels of radioactive contamination before allowing them to be disposed of in the landfills.

Eddie Nanny, director of TDEC's Division of Radiological Health, said the waste allowed in the city's landfills doesn't pose a hazard to human health or the environment. He assured the forum that TDEC wouldn't be licensing the BSFR program if it weren't safe.

"As a unit of TDEC, it's our responsibility to protect the health of the citizens and to protect the environment, and we're not going to do anything that's detrimental to either one of those," Nanny said.

However, panelist Diane D'Arrigo, project director with the national Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said there's always a potential danger to the health of humans, animals, and other organisms when they're exposed to any amount of radioactive waste.

"It's not true to say that putting more radioactivity into your landfills is safe, because it's not safe," D'Arrigo said. "People are saying it's not an immediate danger. Just because somebody doesn't drop dead immediately, they may still suffer cancer or the risk of cancer for the rest of their life. That's the problem with radiation."

High exposure to radiation can cause anything from nausea and vomiting to cancer and even death. Children and unborn babies are more sensitive to radiation exposure than adults, and it's believed to be more harmful to women than men.

The average person is exposed to less than one millirem (the unit used to measure radiation) of radioactive waste each year, an amount TDEC claims won't affect one's health.

Don Safer, board chairman of the Tennessee Environmental Council, said from 2004 to 2010, the city's two landfills received 22 million pounds of low-level radioactive waste from around the country.

"It takes high levels of radiation to give you immediate radiation sickening and poisoning, but low levels will definitely affect your health," Safer said.

Some examples of contaminated material dumped into local landfills include building rubble, metals, soil, asphalt, clothing, and wood. The material typically comes from nuclear power plants.

A state bill that would have prohibited radioactive waste from being dumped in landfills failed last year. Although low-level radioactive waste is still being disposed of in the city, Rita Harris, regional environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club, hopes the practice will eventually be stopped.

She said citizens and local officials should look out for the health and safety of their own communities rather than trusting TDEC: "Just saying that we put ourselves in the hands of the state is probably not a prudent way to handle this. We should all be trying to provide oversight."

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