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NM receives road money in settlement over WIPP radiation release

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico has received almost $27 million from the U.S. Energy Department as part of a settlement reached over a radiation release that forced a nearly three-year shutdown at the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository.

State officials and the agency signed the agreement in early 2016 over dozens of permit violations stemming from the 2014 release of radiation at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad two years earlier. At the time, the total $74 million settlement was the largest ever negotiated between a state and the Energy Department.

Gov. Susana Martinez said in a statement Monday that the settlement was meant to hold the federal government accountable for mistakes made at the repository and at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where workers inappropriately packed a container of waste in which the contents reacted. The container burst after it was placed underground for permanent disposal.

Twenty-two workers at the repository were exposed, and monitors at the surface recorded low levels of radiological contamination. Officials maintained that nearby communities were not at risk.

The settlement was first outlined in 2015 but months of negotiations followed. The agreement calls for the Energy Department to funnel millions of dollars toward road improvements and environmental projects in New Mexico. The state initially proposed more than $54 million in penalties against the federal agency and its contractors for numerous violations at the lab and waste dump, which is known by its acronym, WIPP.

“I’m pleased that we’ll be able to use these funds to further strengthen the safety of WIPP and the surrounding communities,” the governor said. “I look forward to seeing these projects completed, and I know they will help us keep improving our relationship with WIPP.”

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Aside from road and water infrastructure improvements, the settlement called for increased sampling and monitoring of storm water runoff around Los Alamos and regular compliance reviews to ensure the facilities have implemented changes.

Some critics have argued that the federal government should have funded the projects anyway.

With the $26.8 million in funding announced Monday, state officials are planning for pavement resurfacing projects along U.S. 285 between Carlsbad and Vaughn as well as other roads in southeast New Mexico.

Shipments to the repository resumed earlier this year after an expensive recovery effort, but Energy Department officials have said a new ventilation system needs to be installed before the pace of disposal work can increase.

Federal auditors also recently raised concerns about the facility running out of room for the tons of waste left over from decades of bomb-making and nuclear research. The waste includes radioactive tools, gloves, clothing and other debris.

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