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WIPP workers trapped underground during power outage

A group of 36 miners at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant were trapped underground in an elevator for about three hours, Tuesday due to a power outage during heavy wind and storms.

The facility also ceased operations Wednesday due to an ongoing threat of heavy, damaging winds.

Tornadoes were confirmed Tuesday night in the Dexter and Loving areas.

Bobby St. John, spokesman for Nuclear Waste Partnership said an initial investigation showed WIPP’s utility provider lost power due to the “extreme weather.”

He said the waste handling hoist carrying the workers lost power at about 7 p.m. and was operational by 10 p.m.

They were being brought to the surface due to the inclement weather, St. John said, not to evacuate.

“It was an orderly egress, not an evacuation,” he said. “There was no hazard whatsoever in the underground.”

Once power was restored, workers were lowered about 600 feet back underground and brought to the surface using the salt hoist.

“We restored power to the waste hoist, lowered the employees back to the underground and moved them out using the salt shaft,” St. John said. “It wasn’t a total outage.”

Workers were medically evaluated once they reached the surface, and provided water, St. John said.

He said the hoist locked into position when it lost power, and was designed to hold 75 people or 45 tons.

Work stoppage a safety measure

James Mason, acting public affairs manager with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office said pausing WIPP operations on Wednesday was meant to ensure worker safety for commutes to and from the facility during the ongoing heavy winds.

The National Weather Service predicted winds in the area could reach up to 80 mph.

“The decision not to work today was based the prediction of 80 mph wind gusts,” Mason said. “With the community out there, with high-profile traffic, it’s a safety measure.”

St. John said WIPP has stopped work due to weather in the past, pointing to a pause in 2014 due to a blizzard.

Work at WIPP would likely resume on Thursday, he said.

“We always keep track of the weather,” St. John said. “We have full intentions of working tomorrow. All we can do is monitor the National Weather Service.”

The CBFO was in contact with DOE headquarters throughout the incident, Mason said, as NWP provided ongoing updates throughout the incident.

“We’re providing HQ with information, and keeping them apprised of the situation,” he said. “The workers are back to het surface. They’re okay. We’re checking our system to make sure we’re safe for tomorrow.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.


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