Commissioner Martin wants swift action to prevent possible contamination of water supply
State Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin is not willing to let the 2009 leak of radioactive tritium into the aquifers below the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Lacey, Ocean County, become a thing of the past.
Martin announced Friday the DEP will conduct an investigation into the leak in an attempt to ensure the pollutant does not pose a danger public health and safety.
The DEP issued a Spill Act directive to the Exelon Corp., requiring the plant owner to cooperate with the DEP's investigation and take action to prevent the radioactive substance from ever reaching the region's potable water supplies."There is a problem here,'' Martin said. "I am worried about the continuing spread of the tritium into the groundwater and its gradual moving towards wells in the area. The DEP must identify the risk and determine how to deal with the problem. This is not something that can wait. That would be unacceptable.
"As a result, I am calling for a new investigation and am planning to put an action plan together with Exelon for a long-term solution,'' Martin said. "We have an obligation to protect the groundwater for residents of this state. While there is no imminent public health threat, we must act to ensure such a threat does not occur.''
It is believed at least 180,000 gallons of contaminated water was released from the plant on April 9, 2009, through two small holes in separate pipes. There is evidence that contamination 50 times higher than DEP standards has now reached the Cohansey aquifer, a significant drinking water resource for much of South Jersey.
Martin said to date, there is no evidence of an immediate threat to private or public drinking water supplies. The commissioner said the underground flow of the tritium-laced water moves at a rate of about one- to three-feet a day. He said with the nearest residential wells nearly two miles away, it would take at least 14 or 15 years for the contamination to cause a problems for those wells.
However, the fact contamination has reached the Cohansey aquifer is a violation of state statutes.
Martin said the DEP has documented levels of tritium in the Cohansey aquifer that exceed 1 million picuries per liter, as compared with an EPA health-based standard of 20,000 picuries per liter.
The DEP will require Exelon to install additional deeper monitoring wells into the Cohansey aquifer and the surrounding vicinity, to locate the tritium and its underground migration route.
Martin said the DEP is taking the following steps today to ensure no human health or environmental resources are impacted in the future:
- Issuing a Spill Act directive to force action by Exelon. Failure to comply allows DEP to perform these actions at Exelon's expense and exposes Exelon to treble damages.
- Initiating a new investigation and mandating Exelon to install necessary monitoring wells.
- Requiring that Exelon provide split sampling to confirm analytical results.
- Requiring Exelon to contain or treat the contamination plume to ensure there is no risk to the environment or the public in the future.
Tritium occurs as a by-product of nuclear power plant operations. Nuclear power plants are regulated by the federal government's Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), so the state's ability to compel mandatory clean-up is limited. Following notification of the 2009 Oyster Creek contamination, NRC performed an investigation but did not compel a clean up.
New Jersey has an existing memorandum of understanding with the NRC that gives the DEP a very active role in oversight. The DEP, as a result, already has obtained some concessions from Exelon:
- Official notification of the spill was made.
- Additional monitoring wells were installed to help identify the extent of contamination.
- Exelon has continued to provide split samples to the DEP to confirm analytical results with an independent laboratory and has made those results public.
- Exelon committed to move all pipes containing radioactively contaminated water either above ground or into concrete vaults to avoid similar leaks by the end of 2010.
Martin said although Exelon has been working with the DEP on the issue, the department does not believe the actions to date have been timely or extensive enough to have adequately protected the water supply.
Martin said inquiries from legislators and the news media have caused the DEP to re-evaluate the Exelon contamination.
"We have determined there is a need for more immediate action to compel Exelon to act,'' he said.
Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, said environmentalists welcome the DEP investigation.
"This shows the leak may be more wide spread and we welcome an independent investigation,'' he said. "I think DEP should take control of the investigation and bring in their own experts and not use Exelon's. We can not trust Exelon with the running of this plant or investigating the leak. This further demonstrates why the NRC is just a cheer leader for the industry and the plant needs more scrutiny from a group like Scandia Labs as well.''
Tritium leaks are not uncommon at nuclear power plants nationwide. A similar situation with a tritium leak in New Jersey exists at both Salem nuclear power plants on Artificial Island. But that owner, PSE&G, has worked more closely with the DEP to ensure there is no unmonitored release of tritium.
— TOM HESTER SR., NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM