Why Texas tried to hide drinking water radiation from the EPA


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!

Image: Water, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from traftery's photostream


  1. In some parts of the country the natural ground radiation can buildup in homes or crawl spaces and there isn’t much you can do about it except detect it.

  2. Yeah, tough call.

    On one hand the EPA has been increasingly stringent and in many instances it appears more based on self-interest than science…

    on the other, the laws are the laws, even if they arent made by a duly elected representative of the people and has been subcontracted to faceless agencies… with little to no oversight and many loopholes regarding enforcement and such… and when you take them or other agencies on you get federal disaster and other funds withheld, further preventing you from effective local government

    whats a state to do?

  3. wouldn’t the correct way to deal with this disagreement be to have an open and frank discussion via the available legislative and judicial processes?

    i am fairly certain the correct way ISN’T to violate federal regulation, lie and obfuscate…

  4. Yeah, It doesn’t really mater if they ‘agree’ with the law. It’s there job to report the information. It’s the judges job to interpret the law. They’re just being slimy corporate / corrupt officials. Really what’s next… is BP going to say they it didn’t agree that oil well shouldn’t blow up every once and a while.

    send these bastards to jail…

  5. This is an issue in many areas of the country. (Not the lying, which is flat out wrong, but the issue of radiation in the water.)

    I worked at a consulting firm doing a report on issues facing water treatment plants. The radiation issue I wrote about were in New Hampshire (The Granite State) but sound similar.

    In places where there is radiation in the water, it’s in the same local soil and bedrock that the houses are built on. The radiation danger from the water largely comes into play from the aerosolization of the water when it comes out of the shower or taps. The water’s share of the overall radiation load in the house is quite small. The cost to remove the radiation from the water is astronomical. The cost of installing vents in the houses would be a fraction of this amount and do more to lower the resident’s exposure to radiation than treating the water would.

    The water companies (and most consumer activists) feel that the radiation problem is best dealt with through local building codes. The EPA looks only at the safety of the water. I can see why they take that attitude, because you don’t want water companies saying that we shouldn’t have to clean the water in polluted areas. However, in areas with naturally occurring dangers, it does seem that public health would be better served by water companies subsidizing or paying outright to handle venting for all water customers (which is what the people I talked to were offering) in affected areas.

    None of this is to excuse what Texas did, just to put it into perspective. This is a local radon problem, not a water problem.

  6. First rule of Texas Politics: What you know is what they couldn’t cover up.

    Second rule of Texas Politics: What got covered up is always worse than decent people will imagine.

    So: there is radiation in the tap water. It is human industrial pollution. It has killed many people. It will never be cleaned up.

    Probably Amarillo; that’s were the nukes get built.

    Just a reasonable guess.

  7. This frightens me. This part of the Texas Hill Country is right where my wife grew up. It’s where her parents lived until they both died about 6 years ago. They died due to fairly rare cancers and they drank well water. Of course that could be completely unrelated. But it has me worried nonetheless.

    Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. I’ll just have to wait and see.

  8. Maggie,

    “Dose might be relatively easy to measure in an individual” This isn’t particularly accurate: dose to which organ systems? Internal emitters or no? Dose of which radionuclides distributed how throughout the body? At what duration? Same questions for their daughter products. Same questions for their granddaughter products.

    I know that you appreciate the complexity of exposure to radiation as regards health responses, but dose (which is the measure of exposure) is actually really complex. This is why the history of measures of radiation dose varies so much: attempts to build in what goes where and for how long are very complicated, and are reflected by the more recent measure’s including aspects of biology in terms of what part of the body is exposed to what.

    Not simple at all. And that’s even getting to the question of building reliable dose-response curves.

  9. Ooops, meant to write: And that’s not even getting to the question of building reliable dose-response curves.

  10. When I lived in that area, they had what are called Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs) for water service. The MUD idea is to create a bunch of very small private water utilities that are more akin to a shared well administered by the homeowner’s association, than city water. If all of these MUDs had to comply with a requirement to upgrade their systems, it wouldn’t be easy to hide in a big municipal budget, and it might not be possible for these MUDs to get a loan to do it. That would mean people getting a bills for several thousands of dollars to cover this. Since a preponderance of people in Texas overwhelmingly despise the EPA, this could cause years of lawsuits and be a general nightmare for everybody involved.

    Given all this, I can see why TCEQ would want to make the data go away. That doesn’t mean it is right to hide public health risk data from the public, or to try to convince people there is some liberal agenda on the part of the EPA. But that is how they are going to work it.

  11. I´m surprised i´m the first to point this out but:

    “Now, this explains a lot about Texans…”

  12. “She says the new rules were too protective and would end up costing small communities tens of millions of dollars to comply.”

    Frankly, the “cost communities tens of thousands” excuse is a standard response, when it comes to not following environmental guidelines. The water could be glowing in the dark, and they’d still trot-out “It would cost communities…” to excuse non-action.

  13. I live in the middle of the Hill Country in TX. In my town there have been NUMEROUS cases of cancer. Some people have even had 2 or 3 different types of cancer at one time here. SOMETHING needs to be done here. The whole town is corrupt and needs to be looked at. They even send us bills for our water usage each month when they cant even read it because the meter is under 2ft of dirt…. So backwards here. Needs to be investigated quickly.

  14. Hmmm… Ms. Kathleen Hartnett White says that she has “far more trust in the vigor of the science that TCEQ assess, than I do EPA.” Riiiiiight. This is a disagreement about science. So what scientific qualifications does Ms. Hartnett White have? Perhaps a high qualification would be getting published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed scientific journal, The National Review, with a study called:

    “The EPA’s Anti-Prosperity Agenda”

    Oh, wait, the National Review is a right-wing propaganda rag, and that wasn’t anything slightly scientific – it’s just right-wing opinion blathering.

    Good to know that her decision to weasel out of her legal responsibilities, make dubious claims about “science” and so on weren’t biased by partisan politics in the slightest….

    Frankly, I’m a little peeved that Maggie presented this as though it was a reasonable “he-said-she-said” situation of people arguing science. Instead this appears to be like the typical global warming “debate” – you put a partisan wacko who lies through his teeth on one side and a real climate scientist on the other side who is making a good faith effort to present the current best science. Viewers/readers are left to conclude that the truth lies somewhere in between, when it certainly does not. (Also, the problem of how can honest people debate against totally disingenuous ideologues?)

  15. The relationship between the US EPA and the State EPAs or equivalent is frequently strained. (Disclaimer: I used to work in the water quality division of the US EPA.) USEPA sets standards through fairly rigorous testing; they have their own labs just for this, and also do quite a lot of field work as well as part of establishing the standards. However, implementation – especially monitoring of industry and utilities – is left in the hands of the state EPAs. Because this is an unfunded mandate on the state coffers, the protocol for such monitoring often ends up being primarily self-reporting by the industry of their own analysis of their own self-sampling. EPA standards are usually conservative, so they are almost certainly on the right side w/r to the science on this, but the ultimate solution is to change the EPA’s policy of delegating implementation authority.

  16. TCEQ has been screwing Texans since it was created. They seem to completely look past the pollution from Oil & Gas well drilling in the Barnett Shale in North Central Texas. I, for one, would be happy to see the EPA step in and make them go away, but Slick Rick isn’t going to let that happen.

  17. Where does one go to find out the natural base line of radiation sources for their region?

  18. I’m somehow reminded of the water supply official who denied that there was dihydrogen monoxide in the water supply.

  19. Once again, proving federal agencies created to protect citizens do exactly the opposite because of human greed and money. We need to dissolve all our agencies and start over with non-paid consumer-watched agencies. When the FDA lets Cheney basically exempt 150 chemicals to be pumped into groundwater in the “clean water act”, we know the system has been compromised. This is evil, and wrong plain and simple. Literally, the people involved should be brought up on murder charges. It’s unbelievable how plain BAD people are.

    1. Confused here – the Federal agency is protecting the citizens of Texas but the State government of Texas is not. What is your point? None.

      A quick review here – on one hand we have the EPA with top notch scientists, studies and data which encompass the entire US and a long history of protecting the environment and on the other hand we have the Texas EPA, an arm of the Texas State government which has the sole purpose of reducing the cost of doing business in Texas by eliminating regulation, ignoring violations and providing a safe haven for the oil industry.

  20. simple facts on commies counting Chernobyl causalties and long term exposure risks and deaths.

    what they did is they used statistics methods. now let’s look at quality of their data samples and the choosen method. they were comparing both non-fatal and fatal cancer cases per region.

    the immediatly exposed people from within the evacuation zone were relocated and spreaded into the “other regions”. now you should understand why there is no difference of the around the plant and far far away.

    the biorobots and likvidators building the concrete sarcophagus, enforcing the (animal) death zone and washing away the radioactive fallout and sprinkling the into pvc solidifying chemicals to prevent the heavy radioactive dust from being picked up all were army recruits, reserves, assembly and other industry workers etc. from all around the country who did come in did the job were either immediatly sick and died in the other region with rad disease treatment hospital or they got home in the other region and died there. now you should understand why there is second reson this statistics shows no difference for near/far.

    but that’s far from being complete picture. long term exposure most significant factor is the food intake. check the fallout map and see all the country was contaminated at something considered high but not neededing evacuation levels. but what? the food chain works agains you. the measured concentration almost thousand kilometers far even 5 years after the accident in food in fallout area with below average falloout is thousand to hundred thousand times higher then the ground levels. so if this is thousand kilometers away then the whole country – regions half way with above average up to ridiculous fallout levels – ate the same risky radioactive food. and this is the killer of the commies statistical approach and the result of “perfectly safe”

  21. When it comes to water, food and radiation and you consider:

    yourself drinking radiocative water, yourself running a farm providing livestock with the radiocative water and using the radioctive water to water the crops and then eating what you produced.

    The immediate drinking is so many times lesser concern then the food… Since the crops and livestock work as “live filters” so all the water you pour on that filter counts as if you drink it.

  22. what you should expect to happen depends on the amount of deposited materials.

    1000km away with deposit in between 2-40 (kBq/m^-2)



    air-now (=1y after chernobyl but so much shorter time = so much lesser the volume travelling by and given chance to deposit)

  23. “In South Texas, uranium is found in the rock lining fresh water aquifers that provide water for drinking and irrigation. During in-situ uranium mining, hundreds of wells are drilled into the aquifer to inject a bicarbonate/oxygen solution to separate uranium from the ore. The mining solution frees the uranium and other metals such as arsenic, molybdenum, and selenium from the aquifer rock. In addition, Radium-226, a significantly more radioactive element than uranium, is also freed in this process.”


    dirty dirty dirty

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