NMED Fines DOE $2.4 Million for Improper Shipments to WIPP

* The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) proposed a $2.4 million fine to the Department of Energy (DOE) this week because 107 drums of waste were illegally disposed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). NMED argues that DOE failed to adequately test the waste that was shipped from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

The fine is the largest ever proposed by NMED for a single environmental violation. The compliance order outlining the violation states that the 107 drums may pose an uncertain risk to human health or the environment. Therefore, NMED is requiring that DOE prepare a plan for removing the waste from WIPP within 30 days, although DOE argues that such a procedure may endanger the health and safety of WIPP employees.

The violations were initially reported to NMED on July 14, 2004. Paul Detwiler and Kerry Watson, of DOE, reported that a shipment of waste from INEEL had been intercepted and returned to Idaho after discovering that it had been improperly characterized. All waste shipments from INEEL were halted following the discovery.

DOE is now required, within 30 days, to prove to NMED that the waste placed in WIPP does not pose an elevated risk to human health and the environment. DOE may request a hearing to discuss the compliance order and their violations.

Further, NMED requires that DOE reestablish the system through which the public can access the computer database of WIPP waste records. NMED Secretary Ron Curry said, "I believe that access to this information will promote improved transparency for the public and greater pressure on DOE to not allow these mistakes to happen again."

Don Hancock, of the Southwest Research and Information Center, says that these mistakes may be indicative of a broader problem with DOE's waste certification system. Hancock says that he thinks that the fine was far more mild than is appropriate.

In 2004, NMED has fined DOE $7.8 million for violations at WIPP, Sandia National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). In early July, NMED fined Sandia $3.2 million for environmental violations, including failure to segregate incompatible waste, failure to inspect and maintain emergency decontamination equipment, failure to properly train personnel on waste characterization and failure to maintain proper record keeping on waste and inspections.

In response to Sandia's compliance records, Secretary Curry said, "NMED intends to firmly establish regulatory authority over New Mexico's DOE facilities."

Fines at WIPP and Sandia will be paid by the facilities' private contractors to DOE, Washington TRU Solutions and Lockheed Martin. Fines at LANL are largely symbolic, as LANL's manager, the University of California, is a non-profit organization and therefore exempt from fines. The collected fines will be applied to a fund to help to cover cleanup costs for NMED's Hazardous Waste Bureau.

Secretary Curry said, "It is always easier to prevent pollution than to clean it up after the fact."

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