Mercury-tainted Soil Dumped
by Annette Cary
Soil contaminated with mercury was mistakenly disposed of this spring at a Hanford landfill where other troubles were discovered in January.
A report on the incident was uncovered by the Government Accountability Project, a worker advocacy and whistleblower protection group, through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Citing the incident and other problems involving work done by Washington Closure Hanford, GAP asked the Department of Energy to open an independent, full-scale investigation of the contractor and to hold the company accountable.
"We take any safety-related allegation very seriously," DOE spokeswoman Colleen French said Thursday. "On first review, the issues raised in the letter appear to be ones we're aware of and have dealt with already. But we are looking at it in detail and discussing appropriate next steps."
Most of the problems, particularly many of the most serious incidents, that were outlined in GAP's 18-page letter occurred before Chuck Spencer stepped in as president of Washington Closure in January. He was named after a week marred by serious problems that included a discovery that a subcontractor's employee had falsified test results at a large landfill used for radioactive and hazardous chemical waste that is operated under Washington Closure's contract.
However, on May 17 an additional problem occurred at the landfill, the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility. In that case, employees of S.M. Stoller Corp., a Washington Closure subcontractor, emptied two loads of mercury-contaminated soil marked for treatment into the landfill.
The loads were part of 72 roll-off truck containers staged together to be picked up by tractors. The two containers with mercury contamination and 10 others had been dumped at the landfill and compacted before a Stoller teamster preparing to transport another container noticed its tracking form. It said "Hg TREATMENT REQUIRED -- DO NOT UNLOAD WITHOUT APPROVAL OF THE WASTE MANAGEMENT OFFICER."
Another teamster, hearing the radio communication, checked tracking forms for containers already dumped that day and discovered that two containers with mercury-contaminated waste already had been dumped, according to a DOE report.
"Workers at the ERDF had become accustomed to ignoring the warnings on (tracking forms) because many had attachments that took precedence over the warnings and approved the containers for burial," the report said.
The waste has been removed, Spencer said in a message to Washington Closure employees about the GAP letter.
"It was a serious operational lapse," said Dave Einan, environmental engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency. But "they responded appropriately once they found it. They have taken the right kind of steps to prevent it happening again."
EPA fined DOE $1.14 million over earlier problems at the landfill. However, EPA has seen continued improvements at the landfill since the first of the year for safer and more effective operation, said Nick Ceto, EPA Hanford program manager.
That includes doing compaction testing correctly and the purchase of landfill compactors. The falsified data discovered in January was for compaction testing designed to make sure the landfill would not later settle and harm a cap that will be placed over the landfill when it is closed to keep water out.
Other problems listed in the GAP letter included sodium dichromate spills into the soil last summer that were not immediately reported to regulators and not handled correctly, a spread of radioactive tritium outside of a work area in January and electrical safety near-misses prior to September 2006.
Washington Closure also missed a legal deadline to have a required safety plan in place this spring after Spencer concluded the plan needed more work and decided to delay some high hazard work until the plan was ready.
"Postponing our high-risk work until we could do it safely was the right thing to do for you despite the negative financial consequences to the company," Spencer told employees in the memo. Washington Closure could lose $1 million in pay because it failed to have the plan ready after taking over cleanup of Hanford along the Columbia River about two years ago.
As the contractor plans all-employee meetings next month, it wants to continue to hear employee suggestions about how to do work better and more safely, Spencer said.
GAP said in its letter to DOE it will continue gathering information relative to WCH's behavior at the site, "and take appropriate steps consistent with our mission of fostering government accountability and transparency in government operations."
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