Friday, August 1, 2008

DOE reaches deal on fines after missing 2 deadlines for waste shipment

DOE reaches deal on fines after missing 2 deadlines for waste shipment

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writer

The Department of Energy will pay a $25,000 fine and pay for a natural resource expert for Hanford after missing two deadlines for preparing radioactive waste to be shipped to New Mexico for disposal.

The resolution was reached in an agreement between DOE and the Washington State Department of Ecology, which regulates Hanford.

DOE and its contractor Fluor Hanford have prepared 3,766 cubic yards of transuranic waste -- typically debris contaminated with plutonium -- for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a national repository for transuranic waste in New Mexico.

However, under the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement DOE was required to have about 3,600 cubic yards ready by the end of 2006, a total of 5,040 cubic yards by the end of 2007 and a total of 6,480 cubic yards by the end of 2008.

DOE ran into trouble on the deadline when work slowed to clean up the Plutonium Finishing Plant in central Hanford as money was shifted to clean up contamination closer to the Columbia River. It had expected to be producing large amounts of building rubble contaminated with transuranic waste from tearing down buildings in the Plutonium Finishing Plant complex.

Instead, it had to retrieve and prepare more drums of transuranic waste that had been temporarily buried after Congress ruled in 1970 that all transuranic waste must be shipped to a repository.

With no repository available for decades, DOE temporarily buried drums that might contain transuranic waste. Now, the badly deteriorated drums are being dug up.

The retrieved drums are X-rayed for waste that's not allowed at the national repository, are repacked in some cases and have their radioactivity level verified before they can be certified for shipment to New Mexico.

"This is a very fair resolution to a complicated issue, and we're pleased to have been able to come to an agreement with the Department of Ecology," said Geoff Tyree, DOE spokesman.

DOE had asked for more time since September 2006 to do the work. But the state denied the extension in early 2007, saying that it needed to see more effort on DOE's part to prepare transuranic waste for shipment.

"Over the past year and a half they have been trying to increase the rate at which they certify the waste that comes out of the ground," said Ron Skinnarland, waste management section manager for the Department of Ecology. "They have made efforts to improve."

Under the deal reached by the state and DOE, it was agreed that DOE must certify, or have ready to ship, 720 cubic yards of transuranic this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. DOE still must formally apply for the change in deadlines under the Tri-Party Agreement, but is on track to meet the revised goal, Tyree said.

The state also acknowledges that DOE did not have as much transuranic waste generated from the Plutonium Finishing Plant as it originally expected and that it has not had adequate funding to certify as much buried waste as required, Skinnarland said.

Although the state has repeatedly chastised the federal government for Hanford budgets that are inadequate to meet its legal cleanup obligations, the state has agreed with its priorities for spending the money it does have, Skinnarland said. Among DOE's priorities are building the vitrification plant, emptying tanks, shipping weapons-grade plutonium off site and cleaning up contaminated areas closest to the Columbia River.

Under the Tri-Party Agreement, the state could have issued a fine of up to $5,000 for the first week the 2006 and 2007 deadlines were missed, then $10,000 for each additional week for each deadline.

However, the state did not see an advantage of pulling money away from cleanup, Skinnarland said.

"Putting some of the penalty proceeds to work at Hanford just makes good sense," he said.

In addition to the $25,000 fine, DOE has agreed to spend $650,000 to bring an expert from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Hanford to help assess potential natural resource injuries to the land. The expert would be hired by Jan. 1 and would work for three years.

Following completion of cleanup of soil and ground water at Hanford, federal laws require that natural resources -- including plants, animals and ground water -- be restored to their original condition and remaining environmental injuries mitigated.

Assessing the potential damage is the first step in preparing a natural resource recovery plan, the state said.

DOE's natural resource obligations have been the subject of a federal district court lawsuit filed by the Yakama, Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes and the states of Oregon and Washington. In 2007, just before Keith Klein, DOE Hanford Richland Operations Office manager, retired, DOE agreed to assess damage to natural resources. But the agreement did not come with any additional money attached.

The expert position created under the enforcement resolution will bring institutional knowledge from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has experience in natural resource damage assessments, to Hanford, the state said.

By assessing damage to natural resources before cleanup is complete, the work may be done in a way to lessen impacts on natural resources or prevent further damage, Skinnarland said

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