Udall: DOE fines 'appropriate'

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NNSA > LANL, WIPP could have penalties reduced by the state

By The Staff

There were plenty of reactions across the board at the news the Department of Energy was being tagged with hefty fines by the New Mexico Environment Department.
The two senators from New Mexico both felt the move by the NMED was justified, while a watchdog group wondered if the actions would go far enough.
DOE has been under fire from state and federal authorities since February after an incident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, one that was linked to Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Tom Udall, who is a former Representative from northern New Mexico prior to running for Senate, found the move to be “appropriate.”
“The investigation by the state of New Mexico found that the accident last February put at risk the health of workers and the nearby community,” Udall said in a statement.
“…I have long fought for state environmental authority over waste operations. WIPP and LANL are a vital part of New Mexico’s economy and our national security, and with such high stakes, there is no room for error or denial,” Udall said.
On Saturday, the NMED announced it was hitting the DOE with more than $54 million in penalties for violations of state hazardous waste permits for both the WIPP site and LANL.
The NMED, in announcing the penalties, found a combined 37 violations committed by LANL and WIPP. For those violations, the NMED levied a $54 million penalty — approximately $36.6 million based on the violations found at LANL.
It was the largest-ever penalty imposed on the DOE.
“DOE now has an opportunity to learn from these mistakes and implement meaningful corrective actions that will ensure the long term viability” of LANL, a letter from the NMED to LANL and the Los Alamos Field office read in part.
On Feb. 14, a canister of waste ruptured in a storage room at WIPP. More than 20 workers were contaminated due to the rupture and the facility was forced to shut down.
Udall said the NMED penalties may not be the end of things for DOE, either.
“Further investigation into what led to the radiation release at WIPP will determine whether more penalties or action are necessary,” he said.
The state’s junior senator, Martin Heinrich, echoed most of Udall’s statements Saturday.
“The state’s action is warranted and I agree that these fines should not jeopardize completing the environmental cleanup at (LANL) and WIPP,” Heinrich said. “Our nation’s security relies heavily on the important work being done at these facilities…Collaboration between the (DOE), regulators, WIPP and the community will be critical.
Greg Mello of Los Alamos Study Group, an organization that monitors activity at the lab, said he’s not convinced this will be a meaningful punishment for the DOE, pointing out that the NMED said fines could be reduced if the department demonstrates “meaningful corrective actions.”
“There is a difference between fines and proposed fines,” Mello said in an email to the Los Alamos Monitor. “These are the latter.  It remains to be seen what the state will actually do.  It’s too early to congratulate them…If DOE funds extra corrective action work through the same contractors, they are to that extent rewarded, not penalized.”
As of press time Tuesday, the National Nuclear Security Administration had not made a public statement regarding NMED’s actions.
However, the Associated Press reported Monday the DOE and one of its contractors had contacted the NMED to discuss the penalties and told the AP it is committed to complying with its responsibilities at both LANL and WIPP.