HOUSTON — Following a sometimes heated meeting of the water committee of Houston’s City Council, some council members called on city officials to adopt stricter standards than what the federal EPA rules require as it pertains to informing Houstonians about radiation in their drinking water.
Thursday’s meeting marked the first time the water committee convened since KHOU-TV exposed, in an ongoing investigation, radiation pervasive throughout nearly every groundwater well serving neighborhoods all over Houston. Public works director Daniel Krueger spent nearly the entire meeting addressing questions from council members about radiation in the city’s water.
“I’m happy to see we’ve begun decommissioning of wells… causing us trouble,” Council Member Anne Clutterbuck said to Krueger, referring to three radioactive water wells that the city has said are no longer available for use.
Council Member Jolanda Jones used her first opportunity to address director Krueger during a recorded council meeting to push for a new city policy that would require neighborhoods be warned about high radiation readings in their water, even if the city does not legally have to issue the warnings.
Jones used the example of the Chasewood neighborhood to underscore the need for a new city policy. The neighborhood itself repeatedly tested above the federal legal limit of 15 pico curies (a unit of measurement for radiation) per liter for cancer-causing alpha radiation. However, Chasewood citizens were never warned that their neighborhood, in particular, had a problem.
Director Krueger said over all the years Chasewood wells tested high for radiation, residents were still getting water that met federal standards. Under further follow up questioning from Jones and Council Member C.O. “Brad” Bradford, Krueger admitted those standards allowed the city to “average” in all of its tests from various wells from other neighborhoods to allow it to stay within federal standards as an entire water system.
Consequently, Jones said no special notification or warning was required for Chasewood in the past. She wants that to change when future neighborhoods might also test high, with no requirements under current federal rules to notify citizens who might be at elevated risk for cancer due to the radiation.
“If a well is high, people serviced by that well, should be notified,” Jones said. “Perhaps we should make our standards more stringent.”
Jones called on water committee chair Mike Sullivan to hold another meeting with the intent to formally discuss ways the city could go beyond EPA requirements when it comes to notifying citizens about radiation, or other dangers, in their water. Sullivan agreed he would put the discussion on the agenda of the committee’s next meeting.
Mayor Annise Parker, who has generally defended the city’s public works department and echoed Krueger’s statements that Houston meets federal water quality standards, had previously said that she would support Jones’ idea to, in some cases, go beyond what the EPA requires and come up with new ways to inform Houstonians about potential contaminants in their water.
Council member and former police chief Bradford took his first opportunity to question to Krueger in a recorded setting, to remind the head of the water department that Houston is one of the only major cities in Texas with radiation detected in its water.
Bradford reminded Krueger that Dallas, Beaumont, Austin, Fort Worth, Arlington and others have zero alpha radiation in their water, and he stated the city ought to adopt a policy striving to quickly join those cities.
Krueger told Bradford that San Antonio and El Paso are two big cities in Texas that do have measured alpha radiation in their water. However, a statement the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality gave KHOU in November said that federal and state rules define any amount of alpha radiation that is detected below 3 picocuries per liter, as being below the limits of detection.
Records obtained from Houston officials reveal San Antonio’s measured amount of alpha radiation in 2009 fell below that level of “detectable” radiation, as defined in law.
Bradford also told Krueger he has real concern about Houston’s own reports, which show radiation at nearly every groundwater well in the city.
“Let me read from EPA's federal register,” he said, before reading aloud the following quote from the EPA’s federal rule on regulating radiation in drinking water:
“It is assumed any exposure to radiation may be harmful and may increase the risk of cancer.”
Council Member Brenda Stardig, of Spring Branch, stated if the federal rules need to be changed, people with questions or concerns about radiation in Houston’s water should approach the federal government and stop taking up the city’s time with questions. She also stated that she is concerned that neighborhoods with water wells with high radiation tests, like those in Spring Branch, would be unfairly “branded.”
Bradford responded, by saying he thinks the city is the entity that provides the water and is therefore ultimately responsible for taking action to protect the public, even if it is not required to. He said he will make sure the water committee focuses as much time and energy as necessary on informing the public about what he believes is a real threat to their health.
“We're talking about the health and safety of families,” he said.
Bradford proceeded to ask Krueger what he is doing to reduce the use of radioactive groundwater wells.
Bradford: "My question is what are we doing to move toward a model to provide water to Houston residents as safe and free of radiation as other major cities are doing? "
Krueger: "The mitigation measure is to continue to expand our system … so we can have a greater extent of surface water, in lieu of groundwater."
Krueger confirmed it could be decades before all of Houston’s groundwater wells are taken offline.
Jones pointed to a recent draft of a federal report that is expected to be released soon by the United States Geological Survey as reason to be concerned.
The report, delivered to public works officials earlier this year, shows radiation at some individual wells test well beyond that federal legal limit. The tests were performed on untreated water before the city mixes it with radiation-free surface water.
While the city did shut down one radioactive well that the USGS tested in Springs Branch - and another radioactive well in Jersey Village -- it appears they allowed the wells that the USGS found had the highest amounts of radiation in Spring Branch and Jersey Village to remain available for use today.
Jones drove the point home in questioning Krueger.
Jones: "Are there any in Jersey Village still commissioned?"
Krueger: "Jersey Village? Yes."
Jones: "Are there any in Spring Branch still being commissioned?"
Jones: "When will they be turned off?"
Krueger: "I don't have … I would have to review my decommissioning list. I'm not aware that any are intended to be decommissioned."
The city is aware of filtration technologies it could install at wells with high radioactivity if it wants to keep them online. To date, the city confirms it has not installed any radiation filters at any of its most radioactive wells.