People at a public hearing at City Hall on July 12 lined up to the back of the room for a chance to speak about their fears of radiation and noise pollution from an explosives test site in the foothills south of Tracy.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is considering issuing Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory a permit to increase explosives tests at Site 300, about a mile and a half from the city’s southern border along Corral Hollow Road. The district hosted the meeting as part of its consideration process for planned tests that would use up to 1,000 pounds of explosives a day and no more than 7,500 pounds in a year. Both quantities exceed the current limits of 100 pounds daily and 1,000 pounds yearly.
About 100 people showed up for the meeting, and from the outset the district’s permit services manager, Nick Peirce, seemed to know what was about to happen.
“We are aware there is a lot of interest in this project and this facility in particular. Also some public concerns,” Peirce said. “We have not made a final decision on the project yet. We’ve really done a preliminary analysis based on the best available information we have. We have and really want to get the public’s input, which is why we are having a public hearing.”
A district study looked at four potential sources of air pollution: the explosion itself, debris from assembly that contains the explosives, surface cratering from the blast, and surface scouring from the blast wave as it emanates from the explosion across the ground.
The district looked at 120 compounds that could be in the soil and potentially be blown aloft by explosions into the air over Tracy. Peirce told the crowd that the lab had pledged to build a berm to contain the blast and put a 3-foot deep gravel bed over the soil to prevent dust from rising and a metal plate on top of the gravel as a foundation for the experiment.
“We feel like these are commonsense, easy to implement and easy to enforce measures to ensure that none of the surface soils will be disturbed by the explosion shockwave,” he said.
Peirce said containing the explosion in a small building would negate the value of the data collected because the shockwaves and debris would reflect off the walls, and building a structure big enough to not interfere with the experiments would cost, according to the lab, about $100 million.
“At the end of the day, we found that containment of the explosion blast was not practically feasible and not cost effective,” he said.
Marylia Kelley from Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment was unconvinced, saying that according to the lab’s own reports, technicians had found 80 pounds of uranium-238 around the firing table.
“If there are softball-sized chunks of uranium sitting around on the ground because of blasts, there are every single particle size there,” she told the air pollution control district staff. “So you have finely divided particles of uranium that could easily be on hand in that dirt. There’s nothing in your analysis that takes that into account. That analysis, to be frank, is a joke. You need to go back. It’s a serious issue; you have to treat it seriously. You need to do a much more detailed analysis.”
A senior air quality engineer with the district, Brian Clements, said the analysis was sound.
“We perform nearly 1,000 of these health risk assessments every year,” he said. “We are confident in the analysis. As far as Lawrence Livermore proposing pounds per day of explosives, that correlates to a certain amount of emissions. We take that, put it in our models, and we’re very certain that this particular project would not cause a significant health risk at all.”
Any risk was too great for Tracy mother Yolanda Park.
“There’s a lot of children here. There’s a lot of children here in California that we should be protecting, and you’re saying, ‘Oh, the risk is small,’” said Park, who is also the coordinator of the Environmental Justice Project at Catholic Charities of the Stockton Diocese. “Please consider the comments of the people here. You are here to listen. You are here because you say you are concerned about what we think and what we feel. Truly take this into account. Please don’t let this be water off the duck’s back.”
Clements said the analysis also included a look at the cumulative impact on health for continued experiments.
“The cancer risk from this project is like 0.00004 in a million,” he said, which is less than the normal incidence of cancer in the valley.
It was the noise of a 1,000-pound explosion echoing down upon Tracy that worried U.S. Army veteran Alfredo Zaragoza.
“I, unfortunately, have had the pleasure of witnessing a 1,000-pound explosion,” said Zaragoza, who served as an explosives ordinance disposal expert in Afghanistan. “The effective safe distance recommended for soldiers for a 1,000-pound IED (improvised explosive device) is 4 miles.”
The firing table at Site 300 is about 7,400 feet from Tracy’s southern city limit, where homes in the Tracy Hills project will eventually be built. The development’s project managers, Mike Souza with Souza Realty Development and John Palmer, confirmed that they had sent a letter of concern to the air pollution control district stating that their future residents would be adversely affected by the noise of larger explosions.
Resident Bob Sarvey said the lab knew the noise would hurt people and had for years.
“1993, they conducted a physical study,” he said, producing documentation he said was from the lab, which Peirce said the air pollution control district had not received before. “They took actual detonation charges, they took noise monitors and they put them in the locations where Tracy Hills will be built. The study concluded that the readings at the closest location show that blast wave overpressures exceed 126 (decibel) levels established by Lawrence Livermore Lab at 250 (decibels).”
According to the National Institutes of Health, normal conversation produces about 60 decibels of sound and noise above 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing damage. Sirens are about 120 decibels.
As the meeting approached the scheduled two-hour time limit, people were still standing waiting to be heard. Kelley had a suggestion.
“We’re almost out of time and you have not heard from these good people and they have important things to tell you. There needs to be a second public hearing,” she said.
The comment period for the proposed permit is open until Aug. 7, and people can still submit letters to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District through its website, www.valleyair.org. After that deadline, the district will consider whether to host a second meeting.