Feds OK $73M settlement in WIPP leak - Albuquerque Journal

Feds OK $73M settlement in WIPP leak

New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn talks on Thursday about a $73.25 million settlement the Department of Energy agreed to pay the state as the result of a radiation leak that forced the closure of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad last year. Flynn and Gov. Susanna Martinez, left, detailed the settlement during a news conference at the Albuquerque Open Space Visitor Center on Coors Boulevard. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)
New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn talks on Thursday about a $73.25 million settlement the Department of Energy agreed to pay the state as the result of a radiation leak that forced the closure of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad last year. Flynn and Gov. Susanna Martinez, left, detailed the settlement during a news conference at the Albuquerque Open Space Visitor Center on Coors Boulevard. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

In a landmark settlement, the Department of Energy has agreed to fund infrastructure projects in New Mexico worth $73.25 million to resolve fines connected with last year’s radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

The New Mexico Environment Department levied the largest-ever fines against the federal government in December – $54 million – over permit violations at the WIPP nuclear waste repository and Los Alamos National Laboratory after a drum of Los Alamos waste ruptured in February 2014 at WIPP, near Carlsbad. That released radiation into the environment and contaminated nearly two dozen workers.

The higher-dollar settlement resolves all violations linked to the radiation accident – both the initial fines levied last year and the threat of additional fines to come, state Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told the Journal.

It’s the largest settlement ever reached between the state and DOE, he said.

“A win for the people of New Mexico,” Gov. Susanna Martinez called it Thursday at a news conference in Albuquerque.

LANL and WIPP are key employers in New Mexico, she said, “but safety is the absolute No. 1 priority. I commend the DOE for taking steps to ensure safety. Reaching agreements like this are critical.”

The settlement will fund road, water and emergency management projects around the state, but most of the resources will be focused on the Los Alamos and Carlsbad areas. Projects include:

  • $34 million to improve roads in southeastern New Mexico.
  • $12 million to improve roads around Los Alamos, especially those used to transport nuclear waste to WIPP.
  • $10 million to repair water infrastructure in Los Alamos, including upgrading the public drinking water system.
  • $9.5 million to improve regional water quality around Los Alamos, including pollution-monitoring capabilities.
  • $5 million to construct an emergency operations center in Carlsbad and provide enhanced training for first responders and mine rescue teams.
  • $2.75 million to pay for a safety and compliance audit of WIPP every third year.

There is no time frame stipulated in the agreement, but Flynn said he expected the investments to happen in the “near term.”

“The input we received from the local communities heavily influenced this agreement,” Flynn said. “They did not want the DOE to cut a check to the state and have it get lost in the general fund wash. They wanted the state to work with the DOE to identify infrastructure projects.”

Flynn also underscored that the settlement money “is not contingent on a future appropriation.”

“It’s not being diverted from cleanup budgets or the operational budgets of WIPP or Los Alamos,” he said. “It’s going to supplement the money we currently receive.”

A senior DOE official confirmed Thursday that the settlement will be funded by money not paid to the site contractors at LANL and WIPP in fiscal 2014 after their performance fees were severely docked in the aftermath of the radiation leak.

Los Alamos Nuclear Security LLC took a $57 million hit last year, and WIPP contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership lost $7.6 million. Both earned less than 10 percent of the performance incentives available to them annually.

This file photo shows a discovery team entering a portion of the the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant last April, as part of the investigation after a radiation leak from a waste barrel packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory shut down WIPP in February. (Courtesy Department of Energy)
A discovery team enters a portion of the the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in April 2014 as part of the investigation after a radiation leak from a waste barrel packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory shut down WIPP in February. (Courtesy of the Department of Energy)

“Most of the funds for these projects will come from the fee that was unearned by the contractors involved,” the DOE official said during a call with reporters.

DOE’s own investigations into the radiation leak found dozens of deficiencies in safety, emergency response, training and communications at WIPP, the nation’s only deep underground repository for certain types of Cold War-era nuclear waste.

WIPP has been closed to shipments, leaving waste piled up at sites around the country, including Los Alamos.

The investigations also found serious problems at LANL, where drums of nuclear waste were improperly packaged with a combustible mix of nitrate salts and organic cat litter, used to absorb liquids in the drums destined for disposal at WIPP.

The settlement agreement requires DOE and its contractors to implement corrective actions identified by the investigations.

Journal staff writer Ollie Reed contributed to this report.


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