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DOE says any fines for WIPP leak will come from clean-up money

SANTA FE – The federal Department of Energy is taking the position that any state fines it pays for a radioactive leak at the nation’s nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad will come from money appropriated to clean up decades’ worth of contamination from nuclear weapons work in New Mexico.

“Any fines and penalties assessed on the EM (environmental management) program would be provided by cleanup dollars, resulting in reduced funding for cleanup activities,” says a 2016 budget year summary presented earlier this month by DOE’s Office of Environmental Management.

The New Mexico Environment Department has fined DOE $54 million for the leak from a drum of radioactive waste processed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The drum ruptured in February 2014 and has shut down the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Project, halting delivery of waste from Los Alamos and other weapons complex sites to the underground facility.

Under DOE’s stance, the $185 million that LANL is budgeted to receive for fiscal year 2016 for cleanup of radioactive and hazardous waste would be reduced by the $37 million in fines that the state wants for LANL’s role in the WIPP leak. NMED has also fined WIPP $17 million.

NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn has previously argued that the fines, which DOE is appealing, shouldn’t come from cleanup dollars. In that case, he said in November, “you’re not punishing the people who caused the problem, you’re punishing the people of New Mexico who benefit from the environmental cleanup work.”

He added in a prepared comment provided Friday: “Essentially, DOE is threatening to punish states by doing less cleanup work if states attempt to hold it accountable for violating federal and state environmental laws.

“States like New Mexico welcome federal facilities into our communities with the understanding that these facilities will respect the health and safety of our citizens by complying with federal and state laws.”

Flynn told the Journal last week that DOE’s resistance to paying the WIPP-leak fines sets a dangerous precedent, breaks with past practice by DOE and is at odds with the Obama administration’s tough stance on other kinds of environmental problems.

The drum leak contaminated nearly two dozen WIPP workers with low levels of radiation. WIPP isn’t expected to start reopening until next year and getting the facility back in operation is projected to cost a half-billion dollars. Flynn said last week that the problem drum could have exploded while stored above ground at Los Alamos or on a highway during transport to Carlsbad.

DOE had no comment Friday. But DOE assistant Environmental Management secretary Mark Whitney told the Weapons Complex Monitor in an article published Friday that cleanup appropriations are the only option for fines.

The Monitor reported that EM officials say the office doesn’t have access to a U.S. Justice Department fund that has used to pay other settlements by the federal government.

Greg Mello, of the anti-nuclear weapons Los Alamos Study Group, noted that an increase in weapons spending proposed by the Obama administration would pay “all the NMED-proposed fines a few times over.”

“Of course everyone in the cleanup community of interests — contractors, DOE EM, regulators, paid-for-service NGOs — wants an increase in the total amount of funds available for cleanup and fines,” Mello said in an email. “That way, fines become a way to use contractor/DOE failures to circumvent congressional budget allocations and appropriations. NMED can just issue fines to increase the flow of money to the state… .”

The Regional Coalition of LANL Communities, representing cities, counties and pueblos around Los Alamos, is also trying to make the case that fines not come from cleanup dollars.