The Environmental Protection Agency has begun to fine the Department of Energy up to $10,000 for each week it fails to start moving radioactive sludge away from the Columbia River.
The Tri-Party Agreement required DOE to begin removing sludge from the K West Basin by Sept. 30.
DOE missed that deadline, and on the day of the deadline proposed an extension to an undetermined date.
EPA sent a letter to DOE Tuesday saying the request for an extension was denied and that fines are being assessed. The fine for the first week is $5,000, increasing to $10,000 for each additional week that DOE fails to start removing sludge.
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DOE has 15 days to start dispute resolution on whether it failed to meet the legally binding deadline. It also has 30 days to submit a written statement if it disputes EPA’s denial of its proposal to set new deadlines.
The DOE letter requesting a new deadline says insufficient money in fiscal 2013 and 2014 is to blame for the missed deadline.
But EPA questioned why DOE had not proposed an extension until the deadline date, rather than when budgets were set in previous years.
EPA already has extended deadlines for sludge removal numerous times, said the letter signed by Dennis Faulk, EPA Hanford program manager. The deadline for having all the sludge out of the K West Basin originally was 2002 and that has been extended 13 years, the letter said.
EPA denied the extension request because DOE failed to say how long the extension would be, failed to identify related timetables or schedules that would be affected, and did not show good cause for the extension, the letter said. Anyone of those three issues would be enough.
DOE also has not demonstrated that Congress did not give it enough money for the K West Basin sludge removal, the letter said.
After spending economic stimulus money between 2009 and 2011, DOE was a year ahead of schedule on work to start sludge removal, the letter said. The DOE Richland Operations Office, which is responsible for sludge removal, received $1.6 billion in economic stimulus money for Hanford environmental cleanup.
DOE also has not attempted to reach agreement with EPA on adjustments to the planned work or deadlines as the Tri-Party Agreement requires when money budgeted by Congress is not enough to meet the deadline.
“EPA has consistently made clear to DOE EPA’s expectation that sludge removal work be funded and proceed,” the letter said. “EPA has identified sludge removal as one of the highest Hanford cleanup priorities.”
The basins attached to Hanford’s K East and K West reactors were used to store irradiated fuel stranded when processing to remove weapons-grade plutonium stopped near the end of the Cold War.
As the fuel corroded underwater, it combined with dirt and bits of concrete from the pools to form a highly radioactive sludge.
The last of the 2,300 tons of fuel was removed from the basins in 2004. Since then workers have been dealing with the radioactive sludge that remains, getting it vacuumed up and consolidated in underwater containers in the sturdier K West Basin in early 2008.
The next step is to get it out of the K West Basin and moved away from the river to the T Plant in central Hanford until it can be treated for disposal.
The sludge constitutes “a lot of radionuclides along the river,” said Gary Petersen, vice chairman of Hanford projects for the Tri-City Development Council.
The sludge contains 550,000 curies of radioactive material, and TRIDEC considers it one of the more immediate risks on the Hanford nuclear reservation. It costs DOE $20 million a year to watch over the sludge in underwater containers, according to TRIDEC.
In December, DOE plans to finish the exterior of an extension at the K West Basin to transfer sludge out of the basins. The equipment that will be used there has been tested and DOE is working on purchasing it.
DOE notified EPA in June that it expected to miss the Sept. 30 deadline to start removing sludge from the basin.
DOE is not in a position to propose a new deadline because of funding uncertainty in the fiscal year that started Oct. 1 and beyond, the DOE letter said. The fiscal year started without a DOE budget approved by Congress, but with a continuing resolution that temporarily keeps funding at the past year’s level for the K Basin sludge project.
The administration’s 2015 budget request for the sludge would have increased spending there about $5 million. DOE said then that the budget request included the resources the Richland Operations Office needed to continue making progress on environmental cleanup and that removing contaminated sludge from near the river would continue to be a focus.
In the letter to EPA, DOE said the money for constructing the annex to transfer sludge and the container system was underfunded by $20 million under the budget request. That would cause an 18-month to two-year delay to planned completion of sludge work in 2018.
A new deadline may be determined after DOE has a budget set for all of fiscal 2015 and budget levels through fiscal 2018 have been established, DOE told EPA. In the meantime it would continue on construction on the annex and purchasing equipment based on anticipated funding levels.
Congressional funding levels for the Richland Operations Office have been below the administration’s request due to sequestration, or forced federal budget cuts, in fiscal 2013 and Congress failed to pass a budget in fiscal 2014, leaving spending at the previous year’s level.