Wash State Requests EPA Fine
by Shannon Dininny
RICHLAND, Wash. -- Washington state issued a notice of violation Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Energy for leaking a highly toxic and potentially cancer-causing agent into ground at the heavily contaminated Hanford nuclear reservation.
The leak of sodium dichromate occurred as workers were digging up an old pipeline near a nuclear reactor, about a half-mile from the Columbia River.
The concentrated material potentially endangered workers, as well as the already contaminated groundwater and the spawning salmon and other fish species in the river, said Jay Manning, director of the Washington Department of Ecology.
The notice alerts the Energy Department that the state believes the agency and its contractors violated the Tri-Party Agreement, the legal cleanup pact signed by the state, Energy Department and federal Environmental Protection Agency, Manning said. The state also asked the EPA, which regulates cleanup at that part of the site, to issue a fine.
"They should have known what they were getting into. They should have been prepared. They weren't," Manning said, noting that contractors at the site have generally performed well. "This was a notable and very disappointing exception."
The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. Over the next 40 years, nine reactors were built to produce plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal.
Contractors have been working to "cocoon" those reactors, which involves demolishing nonradioactive portions of the buildings and sealing the reactor cores in concrete shields. They also must dig up ancillary pipes and so-called "burial grounds," where contaminated equipment and junk were buried.
When the leak occurred, workers were using heavy equipment to remotely dig up a pipe that carried sodium dichromate near the D Reactor, which operated from 1944 to 1967.
Sodium dichromate is considered to be a potentially carcinogenic, or cancer-causing compound. It was used to inhibit corrosion of the reactor's cooling system pipelines that carried Columbia River water into the reactor core to cool it.
An estimated 30 gallons of sodium dichromate leaked into the ground June 15 when workers tried to excavate the pipe. Another 3 gallons leaked into the ground from the same pipeline in another spot June 19.
Sampling of the liquid sodium dichromate showed concentrations of 44,000 parts per million, 22,000 times above limits considered safe for direct contact with humans.
Todd Nelson, spokesman for contractor Washington Closure Hanford, said workers immediately halted the excavation June 15 after the first leak, digging up the contaminated soil. They pinched off the ends of the pipe so nothing else could leak out, then covered the area with less stained soil that had been dug up to protect the site until a new work plan could be developed.
He did not know if the soil had been sampled for contamination.
In trying to determine June 19 where else material might have collected in the pipe, the second leak occurred, Nelson said, and workers immediately halted excavation.
"Typically, when we encounter an anomaly, we shut down work, secure the site and prepare a new plan.
And sometimes that requires more investigation," Nelson said. "All of that was done in this case."
Washington Closure officials, in tandem with the Energy Department and the state Department of Ecology, agreed upon a new plan and restarted cleanup in the area in August, he said.
One worker was in the immediate area of the leaks, working inside a piece of heavy equipment. No workers were contaminated, and all contaminated soil has been collected, Nelson said.
The work was actually being conducted by a subcontractor to Washington Closure, Duratek Federal Services of Hanford. That company has since been renamed Energy Solutions.
Specifically, the notice faults the Energy Department for failing to notify regulators of the leak in a timely manner, and failing to characterize the nature of the soil contamination, among other things.
The EPA will review the Department of Ecology's request, conduct an additional investigation as necessary and determine if any other action is required, program manager Nick Ceto said in a statement.
"It is essential that all cleanup work be completed in a way that is protective of both workers and the environment," he said.
Energy Department spokeswoman Colleen French also said the agency would review the Department of Ecology's report to determine its accuracy and conclusions, as well as to ensure that corrective actions are being implemented as appropriate.
"Our concern - first and always - is ensuring the safety of the work force out there. It's clear on a site like ours we are going to continue to run into surprises and changing conditions during cleanup," French said. "The big focus for us is ensuring the contractor's excellence at worker health and safety when we do."
Cleanup at the 586-square-mile site is expected to continue through 2035. That includes treatment of an estimated 80 square miles of groundwater contaminated when 1.7 trillion gallons of radioactive and hazardous waste leaked into the soil.
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