State fines DOE over Hanford waste management practices

January 24, 2014 

— The state Department of Ecology is fining the federal Department of Energy $261,000, but will forgive all but $15,000 if improvements in waste management are made on schedule.

The settlement agreement between the two agencies was announced Friday by the state, which accused DOE of violating state dangerous waste regulations in central Hanford.

The fine was driven by two incidents. A drum leaked radioactive and hazardous chemical waste onto the floor of the Waste Receiving and Processing Facility, and radioactive and hazardous chemical contamination was found dripping from a 19-foot-long box of waste stored outside at the Central Waste Complex.

The Central Waste Complex stores waste, some of which had been temporarily buried, until it can be treated and disposed. Adjacent to it is the Waste Receiving and Processing Facility, which is used to repackage and treat waste.

Workers discovered liquid near the leaking drum on the floor of the Waste Receiving and Processing Facility in April 2011, but initially believed the floor was wet because of a leaking roof, according to state documents. Required weekly inspections were not performed for the next four weeks.

The state was not promptly notified, the drum leak was not immediately addressed and the leaking roof was not immediately fixed to meet standards for protecting waste, according to the state.

The leak from the drum, which came from the Radiochemical Processing Laboratory in the Hanford 300 Area, contained acid. But the drum was not labeled to indicate corrosion was a risk, according to the state.

The box at issue at the Central Waste Complex had been buried in dry soil from the 1970s until 2009, when it was dug up and taken to the complex’s storage yard. The yard is gravel with no cover.

The box had been filled with general waste from the Plutonium Finishing Plant, which could have included items such as failed equipment and contaminated protective clothing and tools.

Routine radiation detection discovered contamination on the outside of the box in December 2011, but DOE and its contractor, CH2M Hill Plutonium Remediation Co., did not notify the state as required, according to state documents.

Liquid was spotted dripping from the box two months later, but spill containment pans were not used for three more days. Samples were not collected in the correct type of sampling bottles and staff did not follow established test and quality control procedures, according to the state.

DOE and its contractor had failed to confirm the contents of the box when it arrived at the Central Waste Complex yard, assuming based on historical knowledge that it did not contain liquids, according to the state. Daily inspections of the outdoor storage yard were required, but the inspections were done only weekly, according to the state.

DOE told the Herald in spring 2012 that radiological contamination was at very low levels and that contamination on the outside of the box may have washed onto the ground.

However, state documents said the box leaked liquids onto the ground.

The box, which had a steel frame with concrete walls, floor and lid, had severe rust and other signs of deterioration, the state said, and DOE should have stored it differently or transferred its waste to a box in good condition.

DOE has agreed to make improvements to waste management at both facilities where the incidents occurred and at T Plant, which also stores some waste.

“DOE cooperated with Ecology staff to identify fixes for the violations and concerns,” said Jane Hedges, the state’s Nuclear Waste Program manager.

The improvements are under way.

Requirements include fixing the roof at the Waste Receiving and Processing Facility and reviewing the condition of the roofs of other structures. DOE also will review the condition of waste containers.

Workers will be trained on requirements for notifying the state of incidents and immediate notification will be made, according to the state and DOE.

Changes in sampling and identifying the chemical nature of wastes are being made. That includes more sampling of waste storage containers and more sampling of waste that is dug up to improve confidence in the accuracy of historical records of what waste was temporarily buried.

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