Archive for the ‘GAO’ Category

Fukushima Washes Ashore

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

This month the Government Accountability Office released a report on measures taken by countries around the world in response to the Fukushima disaster. Fukushima has been a slow-motion calamity. Public awareness of its continuing effects ebbs and flows like the water that courses intermittently through damaged reactor vessels.

Governments around the world are not oblivious to the implications of the Japanese experience for their own nuclear programs. The GAO examined what steps sixteen countries have taken in response to Fukushima. The GAO notes that Germany, for instance, accelerated the shutdown of its nuclear power reactors, and Jordan reassessed plans to establish a civilian nuclear power program. A number of countries are addressing their failure to plan for more than a single incident, and are now planning for more imaginative accident scenarios, such as those that could involve multiple reactors at a single power plant. A half a dozen countries are instituting automated systems for monitoring and transmitting critical data to regulators and technicians responding to potential accidents. The report details how international nuclear organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Association of Nuclear Operators, and the European Union are trying to coordinate efforts to strengthen nuclear regulatory bodies to help them identify key elements of the Fukushima incident, and promote nuclear safety worldwide. Unfortunately, the report also concludes that, so far at least, no international organization is able really track the impact and effectiveness of the renewed safety and regulatory efforts.

The report’s release coincided with the arrival of the first radioactive water from Fukushima on North American shores. In late February, researches announced that radioactive cesium isotopes from the crippled power plant had reached the waters off the Canadian coast near Vancouver, British Columbia. The plume of radioactive water is expected to reach the U.S. coast later this year. Before you decide to move from Seattle to Missoula, bear in mind that the trace amounts of radiation in the water are not expected to reach levels unsafe for human consumption. According to a report in The New Republic, scientists predict the West Coast will see its cesium levels rise by between one and 30 becquerels per cubic meter. To put that number in perspective, the Environmental Protection Agency caps the quantity of cesium-137 in safe drinking water at 7,400 becquerels per cubic meter. In fact, the radiation recently measured in a single tuna—a fish that travels near Fukushima on its migratory route—is equivalent to the natural radiation in nine bananas. Whatever the dangers posed by the minute quantities of radiation which are drifting here might be, the fact that it is arriving at all is causing all sorts of people to make political hay. As The New Republic details, the boogeyman of radiation is uniting both the left and right wings of American politics to practically glow in the dark with suspicion and alarm. Perhaps they can buy up all the copies of the new GAO report. And use them to sop up the cesium.

GAO Grapples With Climate Change’s Impact on Infrastructure

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

While the extractive industries and their political handmaidens continue to press the notion that climate change is nothing but a hoax, the actual scientific evidence that it is real continues to mount as inexorably as arctic ice melts and temperatures rise around the globe. Those greedy scientists who invented The Great Climate Change Hoax to get rich off grant money are now telling us that even the ice on Mount Everest which provides a water basin for more 1.5 billion people is melting.

As the “controversy” grinds on, the General Accounting Office and the National Research Council are not sitting idly by, waiting for the last skeptic to be won over. According to a newly released GAO report,  the U.S. already spends billions of dollars every year on infrastructure, but much of that infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, wastewater systems, even NASA centers are vulnerable to climate change. By way of example, the GAO points out that within 15 years segments of Louisiana State Highway 1—providing the only road access to a port servicing 18 percent of the nation’s oil supply – will be inundated by tides an average of 30 times annually due to sea level rise, effectively the port.

The report criticizes national and state decision makers for failing to systematically consider climate change in infrastructure planning. Replacing aging bridges and highways is an expensive and time-consuming task made no easier by piling climate change on top. But such planning is both essential and doable.  The GAO points by way of example to Milwaukee’s efforts to manage the risk of greatly increased rainfall by enhancing its natural systems’ abilities (including local wetlands) to absorb runoff.

The GAO report makes numerous recommendations, including the establishment of an executive agency to work with other state and federal agencies to identify and mitigate future disruptions and provided guidance on how agencies should address such disruption. Amidst all the hand-wringing and sleight-of-hand political distractions surrounding climate change, the report makes for refreshingly direct and level-headed reading. You can find the whole thing here.

Yucca Mountain: “Lessons Learned” About Our National Nuclear Garbage Can

"Road to Yucca Mountain" photo by cyanocorax. Some rights reserved.

On May 10th, 2011, the GAO released a report that examines recent turmoil surrounding Yucca Mountain, a proposed nuclear waste repository about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The idea of a national geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel has been floating around the U.S. since as early as 1957. It wasn’t until 1983, however, that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (42 USC §10101 et seq.) was signed into law, officially giving the Department of Energy (DOE) responsibility for identifying and building out such an underground facility. By 1986, they had narrowed their search down to three possible sites, including Yucca Mountain, and the next year, Congress amended the Act, directing DOE to focus their efforts exclusively on Yucca Mountain.

In 2002, DOE formally recommended Yucca Mountain as their site of choice, and the site was subsequently approved by Congress. In 2008, the DOE submitted a license application for the Yucca Mountain repository project to the NRC, but just two years later moved to withdraw the application, claiming that Yucca Mountain was “not a workable option and that alternatives will better serve the public interest.” Around the same time, the 2011 federal budget proposal was released, which effectively eliminated all funding for the Yucca Mountain repository program.

Spent nuclear fuel is incredibly dangerous (without protection, the radioactivity can kill a person in minutes), and there is absolutely no surprise at the amount of controversy associated with the project. Nevadans are understandably dismayed to be hosting the repository, even though the EPA has set human health and environmental radiation protection standards, which the repository will be required meet, both while it operates, and up to 1,000,000 years after it closes.

Whether the project will ever move forward again, let alone make it to year 1,000,000, is, of course, still up in the air.

The aforementioned GAO study – done at the behest of three House Republicans – explored “(1) the basis for DOE’s decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain program, (2) the termination steps DOE has taken and their effects, (3) the major impacts if the repository were terminated, and (4) the principal lessons learned.”

The spin of the results wasn’t positive. The GAO accused the DOE of failing to provide full documentation when disposing of property related to the project, as well as failing to following federal policy when assessing the risks of termination. The GAO also argued that the termination of the project would “restart a costly, time-consuming process,” “prolong on-site storage and increase costs,” and “further damage DOE’s credibility.”

Want deeper detail on the drama? A recent article in the New York Times digs up all the political dirt surrounding the project.

High Levels of Lead, Low Levels of Communication

Image courtsey of Some rights reserved.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) got a public lesson in post-publication clarification when the GAO’s report “CDC Public Health Communications Need Improvement” was published earlier this week.

The GAO report takes us back to Washington, D.C., in the year 2001, when the District’s Water and Sewer Authority became aware of lead levels in the area’s tap water that were surpassing the EPA’s limit of 15 parts per billion. The elevated levels – now attributed to a change made in the disinfection process in 2000 – were reported to both the EPA and the public starting in 2002.

In early 2004, the District of Columbia Department of Health (DCDOH) asked the CDC to assess the effects of the elevated lead levels on D.C. residents. CDC is generally responsible for developing lead poisoning prevention programs, as well as collaborating with federal and state partners to prevent lead poisoning. Elevated blood lead levels (BLLs) can cause behavior problems and learning disabilities in young children, as well as miscarriage in pregnant women.

In April of 2004, the CDC published their preliminary assessment in an article in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the agency’s “primary vehicle” for disseminating public health information.

But this particular dissemination of public health information backfired.

While the article suggested that no children tested had been found to have concerning BLLs, it was later established that some children’s BLLs had exceeded CDC’s “established level of concern.” According to CDC officials, the article “may have led some people to improperly minimize concerns about lead exposure and conclude that lead in the water had never been a problem.”

CDC took several steps toward addressing the confusion surrounding the article – for instance, the original online article is now preceded by two links to “Notices to Readers” published in 2010 that note the “limitations of methods employed and the manner in which findings were communicated.”

But it wasn’t enough. According to the GAO, “as of January 2011, CDC had no plans to publish an overview of the current knowledge about the contribution of elevated lead levels in tap water to BLLs in children, as suggested by a CDC internal incident analysis of issues surrounding the 2004 MMWR article.”

The GAO reports that the CDC has begun an initiative to revise procedures designed to “help ensure the accessibility and clarity of CDC public health communications,” but that the initiative does not address “how and when to take action about confusion after publication.” (emphasis added)

Therefore, the GAO recommends that CDC do the following: (1) publish an article providing a comprehensive overview of tap water as a source of lead exposure and communicating the potential health effects on children and (2) develop procedures to address any confusion after information is published. CDC has “generally concurred” with the recommendations.

You can find further resources on lead in drinking water – including specifics on the Washington, D.C. incident – from the CDC and EPA here and here, respectively.

Why Derelict Government Buildings are Like Brownfields, Why that Matters, and Why Paintballers are Paying Attention

Here’s a follow-up on last week’s “Don’t Forget to Turn Off the Lights Before You Leave,” our post about President Obama’s June 2010 directive to the federal government to dispose of unneeded and underutilized property — and about the GAO’s subsequent Testimony, released last week, reporting that the process was hitting a lot of speed bumps.

As the Presidential Memo has it, the disposal of property offers both economic and environmental benefits: the program’s primary hoped-for outcomes are to “eliminate wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars, save energy and water, and further reduce greenhouse gas pollution.” That is, the focus is on the unnecessary consumption of resources.  But I would argue that there is another, perhaps even more important, environmental angle.

Photo by SomeDriftwood. Some rights reserved.

That angle is brought to light when we compare the government building situation to the EPA’s program on brownfields.  A “brownfield” is likewise a property that is in disuse or disrepair — the “expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”  (See our October 22 post on the topic.) The EPA’s program is designed to “help revitalize former industrial and commercial sites, turning them from problem properties to productive community use.”

The point isn’t merely that brownfields and neglected government buildings are similar. It’s that the way the EPA frames the problem of brownfields is applicable to both. As the EPA says about brownfields, “Cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties increases local tax bases, facilitates job growth, utilizes existing infrastructure, takes development pressures off of undeveloped, open land, and both improves and protects the environment.”

In other words, brownfields aren’t just bad because they’re eyesores or may be a source of toxicity. They’re also bad because they adversely affect the communities in which they take up physical and psychic space. They contribute to urban blight, and thus to urban (and suburban) sprawl. They are a drag on the larger project of rehabilitating distressed communities.  This is not merely an environmental issue; it is an issue of environmental justice.

Here is how EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson described the brownfields project at a conference a few years ago:

[L]ast year I visited an inner city neighborhood. And I saw first-hand, that through the work of community leaders, where once stood abandoned buildings and derelict lots, now there is an urban oasis. By replacing plots of rubble with grass and trees, this community is turning urban blight into urban pride, reducing the environmental effects of stormwater runoff, and keeping rainwater out of the city’s overtaxed sewer system.

And just as we see with Brownfields reclamation, advances in the urban environment have led to advances in the urban economy. Through this collaboration, property values have increased by as much as 30 percent. Who would have thought that a little grass could produce such results?

For those of us with front and back yards, a patch of grass might not seem like a big deal. But when I was visiting that neighborhood, I noticed two young girls who were riding their bikes around one of the rehabilitated lots. Where there was once a plot littered with abandoned cars and trash, there is now safe, grassy land for the children of that community to play.

Now, it’s true that vacant and aging government buildings may not be a blight in the same way as plots of land “littered with abandoned cars and trash.”  Yet what that distinction misses is that both spaces have the potential to be transformed into positive, beneficial places.

And that brings up a final, crucial point.  Even if the government does succeed in “disposing” of many of these properties, a happy outcome along the lines of what Stephen Johnson describes above is not a foregone conclusion. Interestingly, one of the few blogs to comment on the recent GAO report is — which represents, of all interests, paintballers.  This “just might prove to be potential value to paintball businesses,” the blogger writes, in regard to the possibility of some prime real estate opening up.  That’s not (necessarily) to suggest that having paintball centers in urban areas would be a detriment, environmental or otherwise.  But it is a reminder that how these derelict buildings are reinvented could be just as important as whether they are reinvented.

Don’t Forget to Turn Off The Lights Before You Leave

I am reminded of Antiques Roadshow, reading – of all things – a June 2010 Presidential Memorandum on the disposition of unnecessary federal real estate. The dusty artifact of unused and underused buildings owned by the government has just been valued at $3 billion.

Photo by Oast House Archive. Some rights reserved.

Well, kind of. It’s more like the federal government is wasting billions of dollars on operation costs, maintenance, and energy expenses for properties that it no longer needs. In 2009, federal agencies reported more than 45,000 such “underutilized” buildings.

The good news is that consolidation and disposal of such properties could “produce no less than $3 billion in cost savings,” in both proceeds from property sales as well as reduced expenses, according to the President. In the memo, Obama urged agencies to “save energy and water, and further reduce greenhouse gas pollution” by accelerating efforts “to identify and eliminate excess properties.” He set a target date of the end of fiscal year 2012.

There’s just one problem. Well, several, according to GAO Testimony released yesterday.

First, the GAO is concerned that the competing interests of stakeholders could “build barriers to real property disposals.” Local governments, business interests, advocacy groups and even historic preservation organizations may all want to voice their opinions on the fate of a given federal building. The solution? Rather than focus on transparency and mediation, the GAO has recommended developing an action plan to “reduce the impact of stakeholder influence,” a proposal that has yet to be implemented.

Another significant barrier to “effective” disposition is the complex and lengthy disposal process, which includes requirements such as “determining whether the property can be used by other federal agencies, for homeless assistance, and for the public benefit.” While I can’t speak to the inefficiencies of this system, I also can’t say I wasn’t pleased to see Figure 2 in the GAO’s report, which indicates that “homeless providers” get second crack at the excess property (after other federal agencies).

Lastly, there is the problem of environmental cleanup. Federal agencies are required to assess and pay for any restoration needed before they can dispose of a property. The length and cost of such studies and remediation is often so significant that, in some cases, “the cost of the environment cleanup may exceed the costs of continuing to maintain the excess property in a shut-down status.” This is, by far, the most disheartening of the problems.

Unlike an original work of art, sitting on excess federal property isn’t doing any good in the long or short run. However, surmounting the above obstacles and hitting the 2012 target date remains, in the words of the GAO, a “high risk” challenge.

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