The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has been caught helping some state water systems to falsely lower their reported radiation levels*. The Commission was, apparently, trying to make sure the systems didn't have to report a federal violation, which would have required those systems to inform people who drank the water about the radiation levels they were being exposed to. So, to recap: The TCEQ helped water systems lie to the feds and withhold information from local water consumers.
Why do that? Here's where things get interesting. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, we've talked a bit about the fact that assessing radiation dose and risk isn't necessarily a clear-cut thing. Dose might be relatively easy to measure in an individual, but there is debate about what that dose means. Especially on an individual basis. This is why the World Health Organization, Greenpeace, the TORCH report commissioned by the European Green Party, and a group of Russian doctors all report very different estimates for how many people were killed as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. Those differences don't necessarily mean that one group is lying or trying to cover something up. Instead, they reflect different ways of assessing risk, and it really is not clear who is right. You can't just assume the lowest estimates are the correct ones, and likewise, you can't make the same assumption about the highest estimates. There's space for reasonable people to disagree.
This matters in Texas, because the TCEQ decided they didn't agree with the way the federal Environmental Protection Agency assessed risk. Here's what Kathleen Hartnett White, who was chair of the Commission when the decisions were made, told Texas TV station KHOU:
White says she and the scientists with the Texas Radiation Advisory Board disagreed with the science that the EPA based its new rules on. She says the new rules were too protective and would end up costing small communities tens of millions of dollars to comply.
"We did not believe the science of health effects justified EPA setting the standard where they did," said White. She added, "I have far more trust in the vigor of the science that TCEQ assess, than I do EPA."
In response to questions about why the TCEQ did not simply file a lawsuit against the EPA and challenge the federal rules openly in court, White said that in federal court, "Legal challenges, because of law and not because of science, are almost impossible to win."
In this specific case, I honestly have no idea whether TCEQ's position is a reasonable one. I don't know enough about EPA water radiation level standards, or how TCEQ evaluated dose and risk. This very well could be a case of putting budgetary considerations before public health. But, it could also very well be a case of reasonable people disagreeing on how to evaluate radiation dose and risk. Either way, the tactic the TCEQ chose to take was pretty underhanded, and it shows you how complicated science can become when you have to start applying data to real-life public health concerns.
Read the full report on this case — includes links to emails and Commission meeting minutes that document the conspiracy.
*The KHOU article doesn't specifically say, but I'm getting the impression that the radiation in the drinking water wasn't coming from a power plant or any man-made source. Rather, we're likely talking about places in Texas that just naturally have high levels of uranium and radium in the ground, and the radiation from those sources is getting into local water supplies. Just FYI.
Thanks to MrHarley for Submitterating!
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.