February 20, 2013
WASHINGTON (The New York Times News Service) -- EPA assistant administrator Gina McCarthy is widely expected to be President Obama's choice to head the agency, but a key program under her oversight has drawn sharp criticism from its internal watchdog.
Soon after a huge earthquake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that its air-monitoring system had detected very low levels of radioactive material in the U.S. associated with the Japanese disaster.
But as a critical report from the EPA's inspector general later detailed, the monitoring network, known as RadNet, was in disarray when radiation began spewing from Fukushima. Fully 20 percent of RadNet monitors across the United States were inoperative, and had been for an average of 130 days.
In its report, the inspector general faulted maintenance of the monitors and also pointed out that implementation of the program was incomplete and years behind schedule. It blamed insufficient oversight from the office McCarthy heads as assistant administrator for air and radiation.
Now, nearly two years after Fukushima, it is unclear whether the RadNet system has been fully implemented and repaired.
"EPA is actively working to address questions and concerns within the inspector general's report," an agency official said Tuesday. "EPA has examined RadNet station operability and monitor maintenance concerns and continues to work with our contractors to address the issue more completely and to provide the highest quality of operation," the official added.
"Broken RadNet monitors and late filter changes impaired this critical infrastructure asset," the inspector general's April 2012 report said. "Because EPA did not manage RadNet as a high-priority program, parts shortages and insufficient contractor oversight contributed to the extensive delay in fixing broken monitors."
The report said that the out-of-service monitors and unchanged filters "may reduce the availability and quality of critical data needed to assess radioactive threats to public health."
Among the 25 locations with inoperative monitors at the time of Fukushima were Harlingen, Lubbock, El Paso, Corpus Christi and Laredo, Texas; Hartford, Conn; Fontana and San Diego, Calif.; and Syracuse and Buffalo, N.Y.
The EPA official said Tuesday that even with the broken monitors, the RadNet system was able to provide sufficient data to determine airborne levels of radioactivity from Fukushima, which were always "well below any level of public health concern."
In a random sampling of 12 monitors from May 1, 2010 to April 30, 2011, the inspector general's office found more than 41 percent of filter changes were not made. At the Houston monitoring station, for example, 30 of the 104 changes were not made, and in Fort Worth, 39 were not made. In Burlington, Vt., only three of the 104 scheduled changes were made, and in St. Louis, only six were made.
In addition to monitoring the U.S. impacts of a global nuclear incident like Fukushima, the network could also be an important way of quickly identifying a terrorist threat.
In December 2004, the EPA designated RadNet monitors as critical infrastructure. Again in 2008, the network was listed as a key federal security resource. But ever since, EPA has lagged behind schedule in getting RadNet up and running.
In 2009, meeting such Homeland Security priorities was listed as one of the agency's key challenges, and the inspector general's office recommended completion of the project and stepped-up monitoring. But in September of last year, the inspector general's office reported that nearly four-year-old recommendation had not been met.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Wednesday, "I am concerned that the EPA is not taking seriously the maintenance of the RadNet program, which EPA itself deems a critical security asset. The EPA and this administration have once again demonstrated their failure to appropriately prioritize the American peoples' tax dollars, spending millions on global warming initiatives while relying on citizen volunteers to detect radiation levels without proper oversight."
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said Tuesday, "Whoever is chosen as the next administrator of the EPA will be expected to ensure systems such as RadNet are functioning properly. Each one of these monitors is strategically placed to test air, precipitation, drinking water, and pasteurized milk for radiation, and I was certainly alarmed to know the monitor in Laredo -- home to the largest inland port of entry -- was not functioning properly. RadNet functions as one of our nation's first lines of national security, and ... I will be reviewing why the program has been lagging in performance and reliability through my place on the House Committee on Appropriations."
McCarthy's biography on the EPA web site says she "has been a leading advocate for common-sense strategies to protect public health and the environment."
Prior to her confirmation as EPA assistant administrator, McCarthy was Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. She won high marks for her contributions to the ongoing effort to clean up Long Island Sound.
At her 2009 confirmation hearing, McCarthy was supported by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who testified on her behalf.
Whoever is nominated by Obama to head the EPA will likely weather a contentious confirmation hearing conducted by the Senate Environment and Public Works committee. Ranking Republican David Vitter of Louisiana as well as James Inhofe of Oklahoma have been strident critics of the agency, and Vitter has previously questioned McCarthy's EPA performance. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., committee chair, declined to comment on the RadNet matter Tuesday.
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