On Monday, November 26, 2007, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) issued three notices to the Department of Energy (DOE) for violations of the hazardous waste operating permit for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). NMED proposed total fines of $996,220 because of problems with shipments of radioactive waste and groundwater monitoring at the DOE's nuclear waste dump east of Carlsbad.
The largest of the proposed fines was $847,000. It was issued because Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and WIPP officials did not ensure that 121 waste drums containing sludge were properly characterized, or examined, to determine what was inside the drums. According to Jon Goldstein, NMED Water and Waste Division Director, videotapes show that technicians "only casually examined the surface of the waste in these containers, making it impossible to determine whether prohibited items might be below the surface of the sludge."
That inadequate examination occurred between May 4 and June 23, 2005. During that time, LANL was trying to ramp up its waste shipments to WIPP. LANL had just resumed shipments the month before, after not having made any shipments to WIPP for 17 months because of previous waste characterization errors.
Don Hancock, of Southwest Research and Information Center, said, "This kind of rushing to meet schedules and cutting corners to do so is exactly the reason we need stringent permit requirements and strict enforcement. I applaud NMED for taking strong action so that WIPP, LANL, and the other waste sites know that they must comply with the health and safety requirements of the permit."
NMED is also requiring DOE to submit a plan to remove those 121 containers from WIPP. If DOE maintains that the containers do not need to be removed, then they must provide technical justification for why those containers pose no elevated risk to human health and the environment. Hancock said that removing the drums "is going to be a bear of a problem. [DOE] knows that. I know that."
NMED is also requiring new training for all workers at all sites about using improved visual examination techniques to ensure that each container is examined so that no prohibited items are shipped for disposal at WIPP.
The second violation related to one drum from the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) that was shipped in June 2007 without being characterized and which contained liquids that cannot be disposed at WIPP. On August 3, NMED ordered that drum to be shipped back to INL. The proposed $110,700 fine was for the permit violations and because the drum was at WIPP for 55 days before it was removed.
The third violation was for deficiencies in the ground water monitoring program at WIPP, and the proposed fine is $38,520.
DOE may contest the fines and is expected to engage in negotiations with NMED in December to try to reduce the fines and change some of the other requirements.