Water-pollution study blames atomic center


Residents living near Argentina’s Ezeiza Atomic Center (CAE) are charging that their underground water supplies have been contaminated by the nuclear research and fuel-production facility.

A court-ordered study released last month concludes uranium and other pollution has infiltrated local groundwater supplies, and it points to the center as the source. The study also recommends that well water in the area not be consumed.

The news has stirred intense public concern—and a surge of bottled-water demand—in Ezeiza, a municipality just outside Buenos Aires that includes the capital city’s main international airport. It also has caused worry in the nearby municipalities of Esteban Echeverría and La Matanza, where the report says groundwater might also be contaminated. Collectively, the three municipalities have a population of over 1.6 million.

However, Argentina’s National Atomic Energy Commission (Cnea), which owns the atomic center, strongly challenges the study’s conclusions and maintains it has “an impeccable record in the area of nuclear security.”

Causing the commotion is a 600-page study ordered in connection with a court inquiry into possible contamination of Ezeiza-area groundwater.

Stealthy delivery

A copy of the study mysteriously showed up last month in the mailbox of Valentín Stiglitz, president of the Association Against the Environmental Contamination of Esteban Echeverría and Ezeiza. A letter Stiglitz had published in the Argentine daily newspaper La Nación in 2000 was the catalyst for the court inquiry, which was launched the same year.

Once the water study was made public on March 8, the first federal court of Lomas de Zamora, Buenos Aires province, confirmed its authenticity and said it had notified Argentina’s Environment Secretariat and other authorities of the findings. The court also said it had ordered an interdisciplinary team of specialists to undertake a new study to establish “the total impact” of the alleged contamination.

The coordinator of the report released last month, hydro-geologist Fernando Máximo Díaz, says 46 well-water samples were taken from a variety of locations ranging from the atomic center grounds to the community of Monte Grande, some six miles (10 kms) away. Of those, 34 showed contamination with natural and enriched uranium, other radioactive substances and nitrates, says the study, which points to the atomic center as the source.

Cnea argues that the study’s uranium findings are entirely the result of naturally occurring uranium in the ground, and it says that nitrates are typically found in densely populated areas which, like Ezeiza, lack extensive sewage infrastructure. The agency terms the maximum levels of uranium reported in the study samples—56 micrograms per liter of water—“not dangerous for the population,” asserting Argentine law allows up to 100 micrograms of uranium per liter of drinking water.

Green advocates disagree. “Cnea doesn’t know how to read the law,” says biologist Raúl Montenegro, president of the Argentine environmental group Foundation for the Defense of the Environment (Funam). Montenegro insists Argentina’s 100-microgram guideline applies to river water before it is treated and distributed to consumers—not to well water, which is consumed without being treated.

Argentina’s guideline

The 1993 decree (831/93) implementing Argentina’s hazardous-waste law establishes a 100-microgram-per-liter level for uranium in an annex titled: “guideline levels of water quality for human drinking-water sources with conventional treatment.”

If the guideline does apply to treated drinking water, it nevertheless is more permissive than the 15-microgram-per-liter ceiling for uranium in drinking water suggested by the World Health Organization and the 30-microgram-per-liter maximum allowable limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The four-decade-old Ezeiza Atomic Center is one of three nuclear research and development facilities in Argentina. It produces radioisotopes as well as fuel and other materials for Argentina’s two nuclear-power stations.

As the center has grown over the years, it has drawn complaints. Chief among them are that its location near the airport raises the odds that a plane might crash into it and that, more generally, a serious accident at the center could take an inordinately heavy toll given the populous communities nearby.

Now, water is the issue. According to the study released last month, three components of the center could potentially be the source of the radiation found in the well-water samples.

One is Conuar, a mixed, public-private company that produces fuel for Argentina’s nuclear power plants. The second is Field 5, formerly the site of a plant where uranium metal was produced. The third suggested source of pollution is “the trenches”—pits where the report says radioactive waste was buried from 1969 to 1999.

- Daniel Gutman

Marcelo Lamana
Communications and Public Relations
National Atomic Energy Commission (Cnea)
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel: +(54 11) 4704-1000
Email: lamana@cnea.gov.ar
Raúl Montenegro
Foundation for the Defense of the Environment (Funam)
Córdoba, Argentina
Tel: +(54 351) 455-7710
Email: montenegro@funam.org.ar
Website: www.funam.org.ar
Alberto Santamarina
Judge, Criminal Correctional Federal Court No. 1 of Lomas de Zamora
Lomas de Zamora, Argentina
Tel: +(54 11) 4296-3955
Valentín Stiglitz
Association against the Environmental Contamination of Esteban Echeverría and Ezeiza
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel: +(54 11) 4296-3955
Email: aambientalecheverria@yahoo.com.ar