I-Team: City of Houston shuts down two radioactive water wells

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by Mark Greenblatt/Investigative Reporter

khou.com

Posted on December 23, 2010 at 1:32 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 9:25 AM

HOUSTON -- A radioactive water well that is controlled by the City of Houston, and that serves residents of Jersey Village, is no longer being used, according to the communications director for Houston Mayor Annise Parker.   

On Monday, a KHOU-TV investigation revealed Jersey Village water well #3 was one of 10 water wells identified by recent federal tests as having tested high for a particularly damaging form of radiation called alpha radiation.   

As recently as two weeks ago, city officials had said that same well, and nine others across the city, remained online and “available for use,” even after being identified in a draft report by the United States Geological Survey as testing high for radioactive contaminants that are known to immediately increase risks for cancer.   

In addition, the city says it is no longer using Spring Branch water well #6.  That well was found to have smaller levels of radiation by the draft USGS report, but not enough to approach the legal limit.  Instead, the federal agency found it had tested double the legal limit for arsenic, another carcinogen that can cause cancer and other ill health effects.

Earlier this week, city council member and former police chief C.O. “Brad” Bradford criticized city leaders for not doing more, sooner.  He reviewed the draft copy of the USGS report, which revealed radiation was detected in nearly every groundwater well the federal agency tested in Houston. The draft was delivered to city officials in the public works department in September.  Bradford said citizens were in danger and should be warned of their increased cancer risks, even if the radiation levels were below “legal” limits that force utilities to act.

“Neighborhoods in Houston should be on notice,” Bradford said. “We have a problem with the drinking water and use of water in Houston, Texas.”

Bradford noted that Houston residents just “suffered” a 40-percent rate hike on their water bills, and said he believes they deserve better.

“If Dallas and Austin and other major cities supply water without radiation, why can't Houston?” he asked.

An ongoing KHOU investigation has revealed that Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, Beaumont, San Antonio, Arlington, and nearly every major city in the state, show zero alpha radiation in their water.   Despite Houston’s nearly unique position, Mayor Annise Parker went on the defensive at a press conference early Wednesday afternoon.

MAYOR PARKER: "We have a safe water system, and we do not provide unsafe water."

KHOU:  "You say again the water is 'safe.' In your opinion, how much radiation is it safe to drink?"

MAYOR PARKER:  "You know I have no idea what goes into the technical water qualifications of our water system. We follow EPA guidelines."

Other elected leaders, like council member Jolanda Jones, don’t think those EPA guidelines go far enough.

She recently spoke to concerned residents of Houston's Chasewood neighborhood, who were exposed to many years' worth of radioactive water from a city water well that consistently tested higher than the EPA legal limit for alpha radiation. 

However, because water wells in other neighborhoods in Houston are served by wells with less radiation, Houston’s water supply as an entire “system” stayed in compliance with federal regulations. As a result, Chasewood residents were never warned of what Jones calls a real danger to their neighborhood.

The council member noted that one street there has just 21 homes and 14 cases of cancer.

It is why Jones is calling on the city’s mayor and other leaders in public works to create a formal policy that goes farther than what she calls “lax EPA requirements” on notification.   Jones suggests if a well ever tests higher than the federal legal limit for radiation, citizens in the surrounding neighborhood would be notified without delay.

The Chasewood community is a largely minority community.   

Jones took to authoring newspaper articles in community newspapers such as the African-American News & Issues publication, which describes itself as “Texas’s Widest Circulated and Read Newspaper with a Black Perspective,” calling attention to what she felt were injustices and public-health threats the citizens of Chasewood were exposed to.

More recently, Jones authored a new article in the same publication entitled, “There are more potential Chasewood’s.”  She included information about many of the hot-spot wells identified by the USGS report, and urged citizens to “make your voices heard” or risk having nothing done by city leaders, who she feels have not been eager to act.

Houston’s mayor on Wednesday reiterated that Houston does not have to act. 

MAYOR PARKER: "We have met every standard the federal government sets."

KHOU:  "The federal government has a 'legal' standard which you may meet, but the federally recognized 'health' standard of zero radiation in the water, you don't meet. So I would respectfully ask you one more time, what are you going to do to help get the citizens of Houston closer to meeting that EPA recognized, federally recognized 'health' standard, of zero radiation in the water?"

MAYOR PARKER: "We are going to continue to meet every legal requirement the federal government gives us."

KHOU: "But if it puts you at increased risk for cancer, shouldn't you be striving for more than just the legal requirements?"

MAYOR PARKER:   "We will continue to meet every legal standard the federal government gives us."

When Parker asked for any last questions at her Wednesday press conference, KHOU attempted to ask if she would install filtration devices that can remove most radiation at any of the other hot-spot wells that the city wants to keep online for various reasons, but that the USGS identified as having high amounts of radiation. 

Parker closed her news conference before answering the question.

An e-mail the mayor’s communications director sent KHOU early Wednesday evening described three wells the city has taken offline to date.

“..the following three wells are not being used: Chasewood, Jersey Village #3, Spring Branch #6,” Janice Evans wrote.
While some highly radioactive wells are beginning to be shut down, still of concern to council members Bradford and Jones are others that remain online.  For instance, the wells the city has now shut down in Jersey Village and Spring Branch are not the most radioactive wells in each neighborhood that the USGS draft report identified.

The city shut down Jersey Village well #3, but the USGS report shows Jersey Village #6 as having the highest alpha radiation score of any test performed at any well in this chapter of tests performed by the federal agency in Houston.  Similarly, while Houston officials shut down Spring Branch #6 (a well that tested high for arsenic, but not radiation), they left at least three other wells online with more radiation in Spring Branch, including two that are shown on the USGS chart to exceed 15 picocuries (a unit of measurement for radiation).

In all, eight wells shown on the USGS chart that tested at or above the federal legal limit of 15 still remain online  and “available for use” in their respective neighborhoods. No filtration of any kind has been installed at any of these nine wells.   They are: Sims Bayou #2, D-123 #1, Southwest #3A, Park Ten #1, Spring Branch #1SB, Spring Branch #4, Katy Addicks #9, and Jersey Village #6.

(Note: the USGS inserted the “MCL” dotted line on the chart as a reference only.  The USGS, which is a non regulatory agency, performs tests for radioactive contaminants strictly based off scientific examinations of exposure to certain contaminants.) 

For regulatory purposes, the EPA allows water utilities to deduct uranium, an alpha emitter, from “gross” alpha readings.  Many scientists believe this regulatory deduction is inappropriate.  Uranium is a radioactive element that increases risks for cancer and can also be toxic to the kidneys.   

KHOU’s fight with the city to get more information about your cancer risks

KHOU has actively attempted to obtain maps which would allow us to tell you, for each of the eight wells listed above, exactly which neighborhoods and which streets are affected by the wells identified above, or any amount of radiation.  

We believe you have a basic right to know if you live in an area served by a radioactive well.  The information is something you might use to protect yourself, in the event you believe your health may be at risk from drinking water with radioactive contaminants.

KHOU filed a public information request to obtain these maps from the city. They are maps that officials showed KHOU briefly during a meeting at City Hall, prior to our reporting on radiation in Houston’s water supply.  

While we requested copies of those maps, so we could examine them closer and share them with you, city officials are now actively fighting our attempts to get these maps. They claim that “terrorists” could use them to harm you.   

Ironically, the city has already released similar maps of a well they have since closed down, maps that show where Chasewood well water reached. Included in the “affected area,” as described in emails released along with the map by the city, was the street council member Jones described as having 14 cancers in just 21 homes.

 

The city is fighting the release of similar maps that show water coverage areas only from wells that it has not yet shut down. The city has asked their attorneys to file a brief with the Texas Attorney General, trying to get that office to deny KHOU’s public-records request.

KHOU's legal counsel believes the maps are basic examples of public records that public citizens are entitled to in order to make important health decisions for their family.  KHOU’s attorneys are actively fighting the city’s appeal in the attempt to help KHOU bring you this information.

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