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The following editorial is written after reading the Investigative Report of the Promethium Contamination of 1989 at KCP and attending the June 1, 2010 Town Hall Meeting.

Remember This Moment

At first, when I saw that the Center For Disease Control (CDC) and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) had wasted no time to discount even the possibility that the “extensive and widespread” radiation from a 1989 incident had created health problems, I was livid. Upon further reflection, I realized that this was the moment that they, like former President Clinton, had been caught in an outright public lie.

At every step, the various agencies involved with the issues of pollution, contamination and public health and safety at the Bannister Federal Complex have attempted to minimize, belittle, and dismiss any possibility that there could be potential liability. At the so-called “Town Hall Meeting” of June 1, 2010, NIOSH Doctor Elena Page filibustered every answer, avoided every tough question and shouted down all opposition. Dr. Page spent the entire meeting claiming that there is no such thing as a cancer cluster, in direct opposition of the American Medical Association’s (AMA) long held position. Dr. Page started arguing immediately citing statistics, and yet, she had collected no data and had no basis for her argument. Now, knowing that most of her audience had no background in statistics, it only inferred that Dr. Page and NIOSH took that tact simply to break up any momentum that might actually have demanded accountability.

After reading the entire Report of Investigation on the Promethium Contamination at the Bannister Federal Complex (Feb 10, 1989), I can only conclude that one of three things happened. First, and most likely, nobody at NIOSH ever read the report, and the denial of any potential health issues was a baseless, knee-jerk reaction of the agency in general. Second, and fairly likely, they read the report, but couldn’t or wouldn’t understand the implications, yet in their smug superiority, confident that no one would ever think to challenge the government experts, they never bothered to look for the expertise they were missing. Third, and least likely I admit, they understood exactly what had happened and just how dangerous it was, and then willfully and criminally chose to commit conspiracy and promulgate a fraudulent and unsupportable stance upon us, the American Public.

Let us look at what the report says and what it doesn’t say. First, the report states that for over fifteen years, the Kansas City Plant (KCP) personnel received experimental, highly radioactive Promethium sources, and didn’t know how to detect the radiation emitted. They thought, completely in error, that their standard detectors and radiation badges would show any radiation exposure. However, Promethium is a Beta particle emitter; it does not produce the Alpha particles, Neutrons, or Gamma radiation that the equipment operated by KCP could detect. Except in one instance, when one KCP employee’s badge eventually detected Gamma radiation, but only because the badge itself was covered by Promethium contamination, and a small fraction of the Beta Particles emitted interacted with heavy nuclei that then reemitted Gamma Radiation in a measurable dosage.

Second, the Investigative Report says that over the fifteen-year period, KCP employees treated the Promethium sources as a “Secure Commercial Source”, which meet a distinct set of standards, including: having a hammer dropped upon the source from a height of three feet and not breaking, and having an impermeable layer sealing the radioactive material so that none might escape. However, the Promethium sources were in fact experimental, and did not and could not meet the standards for a secure source, because they were made of porous glass with a thin layer of varnish over the top. In fact, during the 1989 incident, personnel from Scandia National Laboratory Albuquerque (SNLA) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) found that a major component of the contamination resulted from flecks of the sealant flaking off.

Unfortunately, since the KCP personnel had never properly calibrated their instruments to measure any radiation coming from the Promethium sources, they felt confident that the sources were safe based on the readings. They started taking short cuts from even the rather minimal procedures for a Secure Source. Handling of a commercial grade Secure Source requires that the shipping container be opened under a ventilation hood, and a swipe test performed. A swipe test is simply to take an alcohol wipe to collect any particles from the surface of both the source and the inside of the shipping container, and then measure for any radiation. However, because these were not Secure Commercial Radiation Sources, and they were not using the correct method to measure the radiation, they incorrectly concluded that the sources were Secure (free of contamination), and simply discarded the shipping containers, treating them as they might a Fed Ex package containing documents.

In fact, experimental unsecured radiation sources, like the Promethium sources made by ORNL for KCP, require a much more extensive set of handling and safety requirements. Experimental radiation sources must be opened only inside a sealed glove box, with continuous monitoring of the radiation levels in the air, swipe tests of both the source and the shipping container, and finally, the shipping container itself must be disposed of as hazardous radioactive waste.

Third, we know that after finding radioactive Promethium contamination on the clothing and shoes of the personnel who worked in the contaminated areas, follow up surveys were conducted on their cars and residences. Despite finding several of the cars contaminated, they simply removed the floor mats and cleaned the cars thoroughly. Despite finding several areas of high-level contamination in one employee’s residence, they simply cut out sections of the carpet and took slippers, a bathrobe, and bedding to be disposed of as radioactive contamination. When even the laundry room in the apartment building was found to have radioactive contamination, they simply left. Then, years later when both the former employee, and her son were diagnosed with cancer, DOE denied her claim or any liability.

Fourth, over the fifteen-year period prior to the 1989 incident, there were several episodes where Promethium sources were broken. In each case, before the 1989 incident, they simply called the janitorial staff to mop up. The janitorial staff was not informed that the spills that they were dealing with were radioactive, had no special training or equipment to deal with hazardous spills of any kind, and treated the spill of hazardous radioactive material as if it were spilled milk.

Finally, at every opportunity, Bendix, Allied Signal, Honeywell, NIOSH, CDC, DOE, and GSA have dismissed any possibility of any potential health effects to the workers at the Bannister Federal Complex from any of the over one thousand known hazardous pollutants. Shortly after this Promethium incident, 25 employees were retired for excessive radiation exposure; yet, DOE maintained at all times that no radiation had affected the safety of the workers or the surrounding community. At no time have any of the responsible agencies or companies made any effort to continuously monitor the levels of contamination so that they would have documentation to determine whether that is in fact the case. The National Nuclear Security Agency, or NNSA, has choked off every potential investigation or expose’ under the umbrella of “National Security”, yet has continued throughout to pump over $2,000,000,000 dollars of taxpayer money per year through KCP.

Given the facts that some of the employee’s shoes, clothing, cars and even residences had been contaminated, the radiation survey should have included every area of the Bannister Federal Complex. In no way was the radioactive contamination survey comprehensive; instead, it was limited to areas that were given prior approval by DOE and Bendix. Further, having seen the level of oversight that Bendix maintained over the Promethium sources, one must wonder if the engineering and managerial controls on the other twenty types of radioactive material were sufficient. Then, considering the constant denials, the massive quantities of depleted uranium shipped to KCP add an ominous background.

What we don’t know, and can never know with any certainty:

1.      An unknown amount of radioactive Promethium was discarded as office waste with the shipping containers that contained the Promethium sources sent from ORNL to KCP. Where this radioactive waste ended up or what contamination might have been spread to the surrounding community will never be known.

2.      An unknown amount of radioactive Promethium was released and then simply mopped up by unsuspecting janitorial staff after several spills in the period from 1974 to 1989. Yet, none of the janitorial areas were surveyed for contamination during the 1989 incident.

3.      Personnel working in the contaminated areas had significant levels of radioactive Promethium contamination on their hands, shoes and clothing on the day they were tested. At least one of the employees had inadvertently carried significant levels of radioactive Promethium to her residence. Many of these personnel banked and ate on the General Services Administration (GSA) side of the complex, and both sides of the complex shared a ventilation system, yet no survey for radioactive material on the GSA side was made.

4.      A Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) service representative had vacuumed the filters of the PDP-11 Mini-computer located in the contaminated area a month prior. The representative returned with parts to replace those that could not be decontaminated during the cleanup, at which time, his vacuum cleaner was found to have significant levels of radioactive Promethium. It was confiscated and disposed of as contaminated radioactive waste. What we don’t know is how much radioactive material was blown all over him and his customer’s offices in the interval between his visits. Further, presumably, he or other service representatives had been doing the same thing for the entire fifteen-year period.

5.      We will never know how much of the radioactive Promethium contamination was broken down into small enough particles to be carried by air currents. We will never know how many people ingested or inhaled a tiny fleck of Promethium over the years. While it is true that Promethium’s Beta radiation does not penetrate far, once deposited in an air sac in the lungs, or inside another organ, it’s radiation is just as deadly as any other form. That is why OSHA dosage limits for ingestion or inhalation are only 10 mrem/year, since a point source exposure even at very low levels is an equal risk to a much higher whole body dosage.

6.      Promethium was added to the experimental sources as a soluble salt into a porous glass. When the personnel from Rocketdyne broke a water riser in the most contaminated area and then let the water drain out, we will never know how much radioactive Promethium was released. Worse, after the water evaporates and the Promethium solidifies, it would be in the form of very fine crystals, which would be easily carried by air currents. However, we may never know whether flooding the contaminated area truly was an accident, or yet another facet of a comprehensive cover-up strategy.

7.      The first bioassays (urine tests) of personnel that worked in the contaminated areas were positive. Yet, we will never know why, before further testing of all personnel who had been in the contaminated area could be done, the additional tests were cancelled, and the first results were determined to be “false positives”. We may never know whether it was an honest mistake, or if the National Nuclear Security Agency applied inappropriate pressure for “National Security Issues”, or if Bendix applied financial pressure, or if DOE simply ‘reminded’ the lab of just who gave them their certification.

Conclusions:

1.      At every turn, when further evidence might have been collected and documented, it was not allowed. This three hundred plus page Investigative Report is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite years of negligence and lack of oversight, no one was ever found to be responsible or held accountable, and despite giving over two dozen people a medical retirement for radiation exposure from the incident, no public statement accepting the blame or liability was forthcoming from either Bendix or any of the Federal Agencies involved. Further claims of liability have been denied categorically.

2.      A double standard exists, where BP Oil is required to pay over 3.5 million dollars to the families of every dead employee of an industrial incident, but DOE pays at most $150,000 to those that have gotten cancer or other illnesses from working in the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons, and refuse to process the claims of dead workers. This program is meant to be easy and not require the burden of proof that a court would require, and yet DOE routinely gets the Department of Labor to dismiss any and all claims based upon NIOSH testimony.

3.      NIOSH, having never found any government agency to be liable for any health concern anywhere, is incapable of an unbiased appraisal of any other agency. In fact, it appears that the only purpose that NIOSH has is to whitewash any issues of liability for the Federal Government and give it the stamp of “expert” testimony. NIOSH has gathered no data, sponsored no studies, nor added anything to assisting former Federal Employees and Servicemen health care or screening for issues related to exposures from the Bannister Federal Complex’s myriad of contamination issues.

4.      The EPA seems incapable of following Federal Law or their own regulations and guidelines when other Federal Agencies are involved. Even when reminded of their responsibilities by MODNR for years, it took a Congressional Investigation to get them to commit any resources to this issue. Any bets what the results will be when they finally come back after months? I’d bet my house that they will announce that they have found no significant issues. Yet, this is despite the fact that several offices and warehouse areas have been closed off on the GSA side for clean up since the start of the investigation. Has there been any public notification? How about Congressional notification? This smacks of a deliberate and systematic cover up.

5.      The Promethium incident at Bannister Federal Complex is but one of dozens of potentially catastrophic hazardous waste issues surrounding the site, yet, the EPA has declared the entire complex safe so that Allied Signal, DOE, and NNSA have no further liability to former employees or the community. All so that a secret group of unknown investors can build them a new building without congressional oversight, make an unknown profit margin for the next fifty years, and no doubt be absolved by NIOSH, EPA, and DOE of any pollution or health liabilities that result from their negligence.

Do you have an opinion or comment on this article, the town hall meeting or the Investigative Report?  Please, contact us and let us know your thoughts!