CARLSBAD — Worker safety at WIPP is at front and center after a collapsed portion of the ceiling was discovered earlier this week.
According to a letter sent to WIPP employees from Nuclear Waste Partnership president Phil Breidenbach on Friday, the ground fall occurred at the entrance to Panel 4, which has been sealed since 2010.
A U.S. Department of Energy spokesman said the ground fall was discovered on Sept. 27 during an inspection, but it is unknown when the collapse actually occurred.
The letter, provided by the Department of Energy, said the entrance to the area had been “prohibited” two weeks before the collapse due to concerns.
The notice goes on to specify that a prohibited area has significant safety concerns and no personnel are allowed to enter.
Before being designated a prohibited area, it was considered “restricted” due to ground control and air quality concerns. Restricted areas may only be entered with management approval, Breidenbach said.
Breidenbach said in the letter they believe no workers have been in the area for the last six months.
Until their investigation is completed, Breidenbach wrote, personnel will not be allowed in the south end of the mine.
Breidenbach said workers have been concerned about the safety of that area for several months.
“Earlier this year, we started developing and implementing strategies that would reduce the need for people to go into higher risk areas,” Breidenbach wrote. “Recently, due to input from miners, we have gotten even more conservative in our decisions to restrict and prohibit areas. We will continue to evaluate actions to reduce risk and we will keep you informed as we identify changes and improvements to our program.”
Rick Fuentes, president of the United Steelworker Union Local 12-9477 that represents WIPP workers, said the workers have been involved in discussions with the Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership on those ground control concerns.
“I think our focus moving forward is concentrating on the areas which make the underground safe for operations to continue,” Fuentes said in an email.
The Department of Energy spokesman said that path will probably involve continuing to isolate areas where ground control is an issue.
The spokesman said agreements with the state and other agencies will still need to be reached before those plans will take effect.
“In all cases, worker safety will be paramount,” the spokesman said.
The last time a ground fall incident occurred was in January 2015, when a portion of the ceiling near Panel 3 collapsed.
The spokesman said he believed the Mining Safety and Health Administration and other relevant agencies had been notified of the collapse.
The spokesman said the incident will not affect WIPP’s path toward reopening.
WIPP is anticipated to reopen in December.
Maddy Hayden can be reached at 575-628-5512, firstname.lastname@example.org and @Maddy_J_Hayden on Twitter.
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