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LANL faces fines over hazardous waste storage

SANTA FE – Los Alamos National Laboratory has violated state regulations and its operating permit by exceeding time storage limits for five containers of hazardous waste, according to formal notice to the lab from the New Mexico Environment Department.

An NMED notice letter dated March 15 says the state agency intends to propose unspecified civil penalties – up to $10,000 a day per violation, past and present – due to “the nature and severity of the violations” and “LANL’s past history of non-compliance.”

The problem was serious enough to shut down shipments of lab waste to off-site facilities for at least a few weeks. The lab says there had been a “labeling incident.”

The lab self-reported violations Feb. 1. It later asked for an extension of storage time for about 50 waste containers, including the five specific containers listed in the NMED notice of violation.

In a Feb. 8 letter to NMED asking for the extension, a lab division leader said “a recent labeling incident associated with a waste shipment to an off-site disposal facility has led to a LANL site-wide pause of hazardous and mixed low-level waste shipment activities.”

“A deliberate and slow start approach is ongoing as operations personnel practice new procedures to ensure the appropriate quality assurance processes are in place prior to resuming shipping operations,” the Feb. 8 letter said. The off-site shipments resumed Feb. 28.

Federal Environment Protection Agency waste code numbers cited in NMED’s violation notice show that two drums that shouldn’t have been stored for longer than 90 days in a “central accumulation storage area” contained “corrosive waste.”

Another contained lead and two more have codes that appear to indicate they contain mixed wastes, including corrosive and ignitable wastes and substances like cadmium, arsenic, chromium, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, barium and various solvents. These containers were improperly held for more than a year in a “permitted unit.”

LANL faced criticism, lost million of dollars in federal fees and reached a financial settlement with the state as a result of a 2014 incident in which a drum improperly packed with a combustible mix at Los Alamos popped open after being sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad, resulting in radioactive contamination that shut down the nation’s only nuclear waste storage facility.

A lab spokesman provided a statement Friday saying, “The Laboratory’s constant emphasis on improving our performance in meeting RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) requirements has been showing a positive trend. That said, we continue to strive for the best possible results to protect the environment, the public and our workforce at Los Alamos.”

An NMED said in its own statement: “NMED will propose penalties for these violations which will be the subject of a forthcoming, attorney-client privileged penalty letter that is a standard part of the settlement process. Per established protocols for public transparency, once settlement information is finalized, NMED makes the information available to the public.”

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