The stories of towns with contaminated water supplies are always disturbing: strange rashes, stunted growth, unexplained illnesses and long term health impacts. Flint, Mich. grabbed national attention for lead-contaminated drinking water and the cover-up by public officials.
In our own backyard, residents of Shell Bluff, Ga. have been fighting for decades against radioactive contaminants — and the related ailments — that plague their community.
Shell Bluff, which lies just 40 minutes south of Augusta, is 15 minutes away from an expanding nuclear power plant and just across the Savannah River from a nuclear storage facility.
Bernice Johnson-Howard recently testified about the nuclear contaminants Shell Bluff residents face at a hearing convened in Washington, D.C. on water and sanitation in the United States.
“Shell Bluff can be hazardous to health. It has an aging nuclear weapons plant, and a nuclear power plant; existing in close proximity to this rural, mostly black, community. Both nuclear facilities’ contaminants invade our environment,” Johnson-Howard testified.
Johnson-Howard made clear that “there are no safe doses of radiation, and every dose of radiation increases cancer risks,” according to the National Academy of Sciences.
“Most nuclear poisons cannot be cleaned from air, rivers or land. Radioactive poisons in our environment will stay in our environment for many thousands of years,” Johnson-Howard said.
That’s no understatement. Some of the contaminants found in Shell Bluff, like Iodine-129, have half lives that range into the millions of years, and will be in the environment for generations.
An analysis of CDC data from the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League revealed a 24 percent increase in the cancer death rate in Burke County, where Shell Bluff is located, after the introductions of the first two reactors at Plant Vogtle. A separate report from the Radiation and Public Health Project documented a 55 percent increase in the cancer death rate for both children and adults after the reactors went online.
Iodine-129 and other radioactive contaminants present in their community are associated with thyroid cancer, birth defects and miscarriages.
Johnson-Howard also serves as a field coordinator for the non-profit organization Georgia WAND (Women’s Action for New Directions). Georgia WAND is currently working with the Dept. of Energy and the University of Georgia on a community monitoring and education project related to the Savannah River Site, a former nuclear weapons plant that currently serves as a nuclear storage facility, less than twenty miles from Shell Bluff.
The U.S. Human Rights Network (USHRN) recently gave the U.S. an “F” on meeting the human right to safe, adequate food, water and sanitation.
“This is about the United States government’s denial of the right to life by failure to ensure universal access to safe, affordable, and adequate water and sanitation without discrimination,” testified a member of USHRN.
Folks from all over the country shared stories of contaminated water supplies and environmental toxins in their communities at the hearing, including Johnson-Howard speaking about the radioactive contaminants in Shell Bluff.
Representatives from the U.S. Government attended the hearing, hosted by the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and were obligated to respond.
What was their response?
“The United States is not a party to [the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights], and the rights contained in or derived from this covenant — including the right to safe drinking water and sanitation — are not justiciable in U.S. courts. Nor does the United States have an obligation to implement human rights instruments to which it is not a party,” said Dr. Matthew McGrath, representing the State Department.
That’s right. The United States has no obligation, as far as the State Department is concerned anyway, to ensure safe drinking water, even as the U.S. continues to ship radioactive material to the area.
Just last week, U.S. and Japanese officials agreed to send 730 pounds of highly radioactive plutonium to the Savannah River Site for storage.
The community of Shell Bluff deserves better.