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State denies waste clean-up time waivers at LANL

SANTA FE – New Mexico state government has denied requests from Los Alamos National Laboratory to extend deadlines for cleaning up decades-old toxic waste at the lab.

This waste container with at the underground Waste Isolation Plant near Carlsbad shows its lid unsealed and apparent heat discoloration. Investigators believe misprocessing of transuranic waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory may have led to a radioactive leak that has closed WIPP since February. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy)

This waste container with at the underground Waste Isolation Plant near Carlsbad shows its lid unsealed and apparent heat discoloration. Investigators believe misprocessing of transuranic waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory may have led to a radioactive leak that has closed WIPP since February. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy)

The New Mexico Environment Department recently sent numerous letters denying the lab more time to meet deadlines established in a legally binding 2005 consent order.

The department said it has granted time extensions in the past because LANL needed to divert resources to moving thousands of barrels of already processed transuranic waste to the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plan near Carlsbad. The barrels, stored above ground, attracted international attention when threatened by wildfires in recent years.

But the lab’s effort to move out the final containers has been stymied because WIPP is now closed. A radiation leak — which investigators believe may have been caused by mishandling of the waste by LANL — has shut down the storage facility since February.

All the of the barrels were supposed to be gone from Los Alamos by the end of June under a two-year-old agreement with the Environment Department. LANL recently acknowledged it would miss the Monday deadline because of the problems at WIPP.

The lab did not provide comment Friday on the Environment Department’s rejection of the time-extension waivers for projects aimed at much broader lab clean-up issues. NMED spokesman Jim Winchester said the letters rejecting the waivers “speak for themselves.”

A watchdog group praised NMED’s denial of the extensions. Nuclear Watch New Mexico said more extensive clean-up of long-term waste has been on hold because of the focus on removing the above-ground barrels. Projects to deal with more than a million cubic meters “of all types of radioactive waste, hazardous waste, and contaminated backfill buried across the Lab were put on the back burner,” the group said.

“After granting more than one hundred extension requests to delay cleanup, we salute the New Mexico Environment Department for denying further requests,” said Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch’s executive director.

Coghlan said his group encourages NMED “to make LANL comply with its legally mandated cleanup order” from 2005. “This in turn will drive increased federal funding for genuine cleanup at the lab, creating hundreds of jobs while permanently protecting our precious water and environment.”

NMED this month denied at least 14 time extensions, including for construction of monitoring wells and investigative reports on contaminated areas, based on LANL’s admission that it won’t be able to meet the Monday deadline for removal of all 3,706 cubic meters of waste in the above-ground barrels.

The 2005 consent order between the state and the lab laid out milestones for cleanup of “legacy” waste at LANL by 2015, enforceable by financial penalties. Both the state and the lab viewed the deal as a way to pressure the federal government into providing the money for clean up of environmental messes at Los Alamos. But getting funding for the work has become increasingly difficult.

State and federal officials began raising the possibility of renegotiating the consent order in 2011. Then in 2012, the two sides reached an agreement under which all of the above-ground waste barrels were to be gone by the end of June 2014.

NMED officials said at the time they wouldn’t consider renegotiating the 2005 deal on broad clean-up goals until there was progress on getting the barrels to WIPP. Department of Energy leaders acknowledged then that the lab couldn’t meet the consent order’s 2015 deadlines.

Nuclear Watch said LANL doesn’t face any penalties for missing the Monday deadline because the 2012 agreement over removing the above-ground barrels was “non-binding.” NMED’s Winchester said via e-mail: “Penalties/sanctions for missed deadlines and/or the June 30th deadline are still under consideration.”

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