April 30, 2015

DOE settles with state for $73 million over WIPP leak (updated)

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Shipment of waste from Los Alamos National Labs to WIPP. Photo Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory cc

On Thursday, Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Gov. Susana Martinez announced a $73 million settlement for claims from the state in relation to a leak of radioactive materials from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in early 2014.

Shipment of waste from Los Alamos National Labs to WIPP.  Photo Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory cc

Shipment of waste from Los Alamos National Labs to WIPP.
Photo Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory cc

The $73 million settlement will go towards projects in the state around Department of Energy sites, including WIPP and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In late 2014, the state announced fines of $54.3 million for hazardous waste violations by the Department of Energy. The fines came after an investigation from the New Mexico Environment Department.

Earlier this year, a report stated that the state Environment Department was considering $100 million or more in additional fines.

“The Department of Energy and the State of New Mexico have worked together to identify projects at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and the Los Alamos National Laboratory that are mutually beneficial and do not detract from cleanup at these sites,” Moniz said in a statement announcing the settlement. “I am pleased that we were able to find a solution that will allow the Department to focus on resuming operations at WIPP and improving our waste management operations, while providing benefit to the environment and to local communities in New Mexico.”

“This agreement underscores the importance of WIPP and LANL as critical assets to our nation’s security, our state’s economy, and the communities in which they operate,” Martinez said in a statement. “The funds we will receive through the agreement will be used to continue ensuring the safety and success of these important facilities, the people who work there, and their local communities. I commend the Department of Energy for taking responsibility, and we look forward to continuing to work with the federal government to ensure the safety and success of LANL and WIPP.”

WIPP is still not accepting new transuranic waste from Los Alamos National Labs after the leak was detected in February of 2014.

The largest amount of funding will be $34 million to improve roads and transportation routes around WIPP, according to the release. Another $12 million will go towards improving transuranic waste transportation routes near Los Alamos National Labs.

A more detailed plan will be released in the coming weeks.

The settlement comes in the same week that the Santa Fe New Mexican reported on a letter from Martinez to Moniz promoting southeast New Mexico as a location for storing nuclear waste from nuclear power plants.

Also this week, the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance announced a partnership with Holtec International in an attempt to bring nuclear waste to New Mexico for temporary storage.

U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich have expressed concerns over bringing additional nuclear waste to the state.

Update:

Udall approved of the settlement, saying in a statement he was “relieved to see the department commit to paying a significant financial penalty to the state of New Mexico.”

“These funds will help improve road safety and water quality in Los Alamos and Southeastern New Mexico, and I am particularly glad to see that DOE will also fund ongoing independent review of environmental and regulatory compliance as part of this settlement,” Udall continued. “I will keep fighting for the safe reopening of WIPP on the Senate Appropriations Committee, along with continuing oversight of LANL cleanup, which is now even further behind schedule.”

Update 2:

Heinrich called the settlement a “smart solution” in a statement.

“Every report done by the accident investigation boards identified significant management failures at every level as the principal cause of the accidents, and identified a number of required actions to correct the deficiencies,” the Heinrich statement continued. “The Department of Energy must continue to address and correct these deficiencies so that WIPP can return to safe operation and the cleanup work at Los Alamos can be conducted safely, while protecting the workers, the community, and the environment.”