Montgomery County residents who live closest to a company that produces radioactive material receive nearly the maximum amount of radiation considered safe by the federal government, the equivalent of eight chest X-rays a year, attorneys for the Maryland Department of the Environment said yesterday.
The attorneys raised the potential health concerns to bolster their arguments at a hearing that the company, Neutron Products Inc. in Dickerson, ought to halt its main operations immediately.
In an affidavit, the state said that "even Neutron estimates that one of its neighbors receives 86 to 93 millirems per year from Neutron, or 86 to 93 percent of the limit. The average chest X-ray is between 10 and 20 millirems."
But an attorney for the company, which manufactures radioactive materials for medical and other equipment, said the state has never proved that the company has endangered the lives of its employees or neighbors.
"The exposure to any resident of Dickerson is equivalent to the dose received by any resident of Denver or any average flight attendant," said James D. Dalrymple, an attorney for Neutron, referring to the higher levels of radiation naturally found at higher altitudes.
Residents, about 100 to 150 in the general vicinity, have been battling the company for years and have been joined by the state, whose regulators fined the company for violating operating rules and then sought to have its main operations shut down.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Paul A. McGuckian said he will rule today on the state's motion. The state is seeking both a preliminary and a permanent injunction against Neutron to force it to stop the part of its operation that produces the cobalt 60 used in commercial food irradiation and medical equipment.
Environmental officials are seeking the injunctions, they have said, primarily because Neutron has not been able to provide the financial assurance that it has the assets to cover the cost of properly removing radioactive material from the plant should the need arise. State law requires Neutron to have set aside $750,000 to cover the eventual costs of decommissioning.
The state ordered Neutron in October to prove that it could meet this requirement, and when the company could not do so by the April 13 deadline, the Department of the Environment brought suit.
M. Rosewin Sweeney, the assistant attorney general handling the case, noted that Neutron owes money to creditors and the Internal Revenue Service and must still pay to build a structure to cover a cobalt-60 melting operation.
"There is no indication, in our lifetimes, that this company is going to be able to provide us with that financial assurance," Sweeney said, arguing that state taxpayers will wind up paying more to decommission the facility if more material is stockpiled there.
But Dalrymple argued that the company "has a plan" to allow it to generate enough funds to provide the needed financial assets and said that the state's requested injunction essentially would shut down the company.
"If you strip them of their ability to operate . . . you strip them of their ability to do what the state wants them to do," he said.