The Department of Energy has agreed to pay a $136,000 fine to settle Environmental Protection Agency allegations that it has violated legal requirements for storing radioactive and hazardous chemical waste at Hanford.
It has operated waste storage areas without a required permit, stopped using other areas for storage without closing them or requesting an extension and has not properly treated some waste, according to EPA.
DOE has argued that it long has followed requirements in the Dangerous Waste Permit issued by the state of Washington and the Tri-Party Agreement to store waste.
Hundreds of inspections during almost two decades have not raised issues with methods now being criticized, it said.
However, the EPA National Enforcement Investigations Center conducted an inspection in March 2011 and questioned whether several waste storage units were covered by permits.
“When handling mixed (nuclear and hazardous) waste, there’s no such thing as being too careful,” Ed Kowalski, director of EPA’s Office of Compliance and Enforcement in Seattle, said in a statement. “Strict compliance with all dangerous waste requirements is the only acceptable path here.”
DOE had permits to store waste in units within T Plant, some double-lined trenches and the Central Waste Complex. But it also was storing waste in places in those facilities that the permits did not cover, according to the investigation.
Most of the waste is material that has been set aside or temporarily buried and then retrieved to eventually be disposed of at the nation’s repository for transuranic waste, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, in New Mexico. At Hanford, transuranic waste typically is waste contaminated with plutonium.
The waste also includes suspected transuranic waste that when tested was classified instead as low-level radioactive waste mixed with hazardous chemicals.
DOE considers the issue to be largely a procedural matter caused by a conflict between regulator-approved practices at Hanford and how permitting is approached nationally under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, it said.
Human health was not threatened because of procedural issues, and the storage units were managed and continually inspected just as those that EPA says were properly permitted, said Cameron Hardy, DOE spokesman.
But EPA believes it is important that each unit to store waste go through a separate permitting process, said Adam Baron, the EPA case developer.
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act defines what can be done where so that when environmental cleanup is completed it is clear what areas were used for and what sampling should be done, he said.
It also matters for current management, providing guidance on how units should be inspected, he said. For example, it can help make sure that if liquids are included in waste being stored, secondary containment is in place to prevent leaks to the environment, he said.
A thorough permitting process also allows for public input, he said.
EPA also was concerned about DOE’s practice of treating waste in double-lined trenches. Containers of waste were lined up and then grouted together in a large monolith.
Regulations require that treatment be done outside the trenches, with each drum or container grouted separately so they then can be inspected individually, Baron said.
In addition, EPA said DOE needed to follow the same procedures required of private businesses that store waste. If storage is not used for more than a year, it must give notice to start closing the waste storage unit or request an extension to continue using it in the future.
DOE signed the agreement, but has not admitted nor denied improper storage or treatment of waste in the consent agreement.
“We have worked closely with the EPA to address the administrative issues identified by the inspection team,” said Hardy. “We are pleased to be moving forward with cleanup rather than adding to the expense of cleanup through a drawn-out legal battle.”
In addition to paying the fine to the U.S. Treasury, DOE also has agreed to change its procedures to better align with those used nationally.
It will stop using five areas in T Plant for storage and will stop using two outside storage areas at the Central Waste Complex. It also will stop using a small storage area south of Trench 34 in central Hanford. Within 120 days it will submit a permit modification request for closure plans for those eight units.
It also will either close or request an extension to continue using a railroad tunnel at T Plant and a unit at Building 2401 in the Central Waste Complex for storage. Although DOE has no current use for the railroad tunnel, it may be called back into service when K Basin sludge is moved to central Hanford.
In addition, DOE will stop the practice of grouting waste after it is placed in trenches.
“Today’s agreement includes commitments by DOE to address these allegations and ensure that these units are properly managed,” Kowalski said.
In some past cases, arrangements have been made to use fines for Hanford-area environmental projects that benefit the nearby community rather than adding the money to the U.S. Treasury.
However, that is more costly, and DOE did not consider it an option to take more money away from Hanford cleanup at a time of forced federal budget cuts.