The Department of Energy is facing a $115,000 fine for its contractor's alleged mishandling of asbestos debris at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assessed the fines Monday (Oct. 21) along with a Notice of Violation alleging asbestos mismanagement during demolitions at the Hanford Site, in southeastern Washington State.
The EPA says the violations occurred in 2009 and 2010, when the project received an influx of federal stimulus money for demolition projects. The agency says it discovered the violations last year after an "inspection and evaluation of compliance."
The two-day inspection, in August 2012, included field inspections of 13 sites where facilities had been demolished or where asbestos work was underway.
Inspectors collected a total of 22 samples from six demolition areas. Of those, "19 tested positive for chrysotile asbestos," EPA said.
The letter notes specific contamination from the demolition of a water tower tank and superstructure and two buildings. It also listed other violations that carry no monetary penalty.
35 More Sites
However, more contamination is suspected, and the EPA says its investigation is continuing.
"In addition to the violations identified below, it should be noted that in large part because of the manner in which demolition work was performed by the DOE contractor CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Company, an additional 35 waste sites have been created where releases of asbestos to the soil have occurred or is suspected.
"These 35 sites will require investigation and possible remediation under [the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, commonly known as Superfund]."
“The people handling the disposal end of the operations are not aware of certain hazards," Dennis Faulk, a manager with the EPA, told Northwest Public Radio. "And so, if they had known that, they would have handled the waste a little bit differently.”
Faulk told the news outlet that CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co. had failed to document and label truck shipments of asbestos debris.
CH2M Hill said in an emailed statement Wednesday (Oct. 23) that it was committed to working "in a safe, compliant manner" and called worker safety "our number one priority."
The company added: "We recognize the basis for this action regarding our asbestos controls, and we take it very seriously. We are currently reviewing the facts surrounding the NOV. We believe there is always room for improvement, and we have been and are committed to identifying and making improvements."
DOE issued no immediate statement; the agency has 15 days to respond to EPA.
Established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, the Hanford site hosted the world's first large-scale plutonium reactor and was once a major plutonium producer. The site has been mostly decommissioned, but the Department of Energy still stores more than 50 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste in 177 underground tanks there.
The cleanup task also includes the demolition of hundreds of buildings that processed materials for construction of nuclear weapons for World War II and the Cold War.
The DOE assumed control of the site in 1977 and signed a cleanup contract for the tank farm with Lockheed Martin Hanford Corp., which was later taken over by CH2M Hill.
The site and its contractor have both been the target of controversy and criticism.
Fraud and Safety Concerns
In March, CH2M Hill and its Hanford subsidiary agreed to pay $18.5 million in penalties and restitution for "years of widespread time card fraud" at the Hanford site.
The company agreed to the monetary penalties to avoid prosecution for what it admitted was criminal conduct, under an agreement with the Justice Department.
In April, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board outlined safety concerns about the site and cleanup, citing leaking radioactive waste tanks, design flaws, and poor safety practices. The board also reported a "flawed safety culture" at the site.
That report, made in response to a request by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), came nearly two years after the board recommended that DOE "expeditiously make major improvements in the safety culture" at Hanford. In January 2012, a DOE agency independently reviewed the issues and confirmed the board's findings.
In June 2013, a watchdog group called Hanford Challenged leaked an internal EPA audit that criticized Washington State's Department of Ecology Nuclear Waste Program, which oversees Hanford, for not having enough inspectors and not performing required inspections.
Tom Carpenter, head of Hanford Challenge, accused regulators of being too cozy with the site.
"Over the past two years, there has been only one enforcement action at Hanford," Carpenter said. "In the same period of time, Ecology has filed over a thousand such enforcement actions against other polluters in the state."