Details hazy on what triggered Hazmat incident

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TA-21 cleanup: Worker felt the heat during chemical reaction

By John Severance

More details have begun to emerge after a chemical reaction in a bottle containing liquid drawn from a 60-year-old cylinder at Los Alamos Laboratory’s Technical Area 21 caused lab officials to summon Hazmat personnel last week.

A laboratory worker took a sample of the gas inside the bottle of liquid; a chemical reaction occurred that caused the material to flare briefly. Neither the worker nor anyone in the area was injured or exposed to hazardous chemicals, but the workers immediately employed standard emergency response procedures and called in the laboratory’s hazmat and emergency response personnel.

Los Alamos County fire, environmental, and law enforcement officials also were contacted. Los Alamos police closed off DP Road to traffic for two hours. The police department then moved the perimeter to just east of the Los Alamos Monitor’s offices, which are located at 256 DP Road. By 7:30 p.m. that Wednesday, all of DP Road was reopened.

Material Disposal Area B Program Director Allan Chaloupka said in an interview there was not an explosion but there was a reaction. “The worker said he felt some heat during the flare.”

Chaloupka said the cylinder was the 98th out of 101 that they had processed.

The work was being done by Integrated Environment Services, which was hired by NNSA and the lab.

“They are the gold standard for work like this,” Chaloupka said. “They have all the equipment. They had a van parked inside the enclosure and another one parked outside with all their sampling equipment.”

Chaloupka said it was the first time hazardous material teams had been called in during cleanup at MDA-B.

Thanks to funds from the Recovery Act, officials began cleanup at TA-21. The Act funded the decontamination and demolition of 24 buildings on the site, which were built long ago to house the labs, offices and production facilities from the Manhattan Project. That work began in July 2009 and was completed by June of 2010. The next phase was excavating the site and that was completed by September of 2011.

“We backfilled all the trenches,” Chaloupka said. “We are in the remediation phase. We plan on having all the waste removed and the site stabilized within the next two months. After we finish remediation, we will begin the procurement phase, which includes removing the fixed enclosures and we hope by the next fiscal year, we will have everything cleaned up. We then hope we can transfer the land. The county is the intended target.”

Chaloupka said the priority has shifted to cleanup at TA-54 in attempts to get the TRU-Waste off the Hill.

All of the remediation work at TA-21 is done in a metal enclosure about 200 feet long, resembling an airplane hangar. The structure is equipped with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) and activated carbon filtration system, which means any vapors from laboratory operations were captured and processed through the filtration system.

This particular sampling process involved removing the cylinder’s contents prior to disposing of the cylinders. The contents of one cylinder had been drained into three, one-liter plastic bottles. The reaction occurred during the gas sampling activity, and caused a plastic sampling bag to burst and the contents to ignite briefly when they were exposed to air.

Laboratory hazmat personnel took command of the situation upon arriving. They entered the structure and validated that no radiological or significant chemical hazards were or are present. No readings of any hazardous constituent were detected outside of the enclosure.

Air sampling inside the enclosure indicated very low levels of volatile organic compounds in the immediate area of the containers. Examples of volatile organic compounds could include things like gasoline or turpentine. The workers conducting the sampling activity were wearing protective clothing and equipped with supplied air, which provided protection against any potential chemical contamination.

Chaloupka said Thursday emergency management personnel were still on the scene and most of his workers were off on Friday. Chaloupka said by Monday his office would take over the site and there will be meetings to discuss what happened.

“We have meetings all the time to discuss the status of the project,” Chaloupka said.

The one on Monday may be just a little more interesting.