MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

WIPP UPDATE:
Waste shipments to WIPP
violate safety requirements

Citizen protest continues along with new lawsuits

From March 26 to November 9, 1999, 44 shipments of nuclear waste were transported to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M., from three Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear weapons sites. After a four-month hiatus, another shipment arrived at WIPP on March 11, and DOE hopes to bring wastes from five sites to WIPP during 2000. Citizen opposition to WIPP has continued, in administrative hearings, in the courts, and on the streets. The DOE's program of leaving nuclear wastes and the resulting contamination where it wants, transporting it where it wants, and providing fewer protections to New Mexico citizens than to others also continues. (See The Workbook, Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 38-45.)

The shipments in 1999 — 17 from Los Alamos National Lab (LANL) in New Mexico, 4 from the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), and 23 from the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site (RFETS) in Colorado — were about half of what DOE had planned for the year, and 11 fewer than planned even as of early November. And because the majority of the trucks were less than a "full load," the actual amount of waste brought to WIPP was less than half of what DOE planned. All of the shipments occurred before the operating permit for the site, issued by the State of New Mexico, went into effect November 26.

So during a time of minimal external regulation, shipments to WIPP were limited because of problems at DOE's sites:

  • INEEL's shipments were suspended after a review of the first truckload showed that several key technical requirements were "unsatisfactorily implemented."
  • INEEL subsequently sent three more shipments though many of the problems initially identified were still not corrected.
  • Rocky Flats sent numerous shipments, perhaps all of them after the first one, without following proper verification procedures. Rather than verifying that each shipment was properly loaded, RFETS officials copied a signed, initialed form and reused it for subsequent shipments. When the problem was discovered on November 9, 11 shipments were cancelled.
  • LANL's shipments took six months, rather than the four months planned, because the site didn't have the trained staff to prepare the shipments.
  • INEEL and Rocky Flats were cited by DOE for buying hundreds of defective waste storage containers, and in the case of INEEL, actually loading waste in them for shipments to WIPP.

Various transportation "incidents" also occurred:

  • Shipment #1 from Rocky Flats arrived at WIPP on June 17 with radioactive contamination on the outside of the empty TRUPACT-II shipping container. DOE did not admit there was contamination until SRIC notified New Mexico state officials. DOE then maintained that the contamination was naturally occurring, picked up along the transportation route, though it promised to notify the state of future incidents.
  • Shipment #12 from LANL arrived at WIPP on June 24 with a missing vent cover.
  • Shipment #2 from RFETS was stopped for a routine inspection at the New Mexico state line on July 2 and the driver was ticketed because one of the radioactive placards had fallen down and an air brake hose was leaking. The driver went to court and had the ticket forgiven, since he would have lost his job if the violation remained.
  • Two shipments — one from INEEL and one from LANL — arrived at WIPP missing an O-ring seal.
  • Loose screws were discovered requriring half of the shipping containers to be "reconfigured."

During February and March, 1999, more than 100 citizens testified in opposition to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) issuing the operating permit. During 19 days of hearings and cross-examination of witneses, SRIC and other groups introduced technical testimony. Nevertheless, NMED issued the permit on October 27.

On November 3, DOE filed suit in federal district court in Albuquerque, challenging some provisions of the permit. Also in November, three separate appeals of the permit were filed in the New Mexico Court of Appeals by SRIC along with two citizens, DOE, and a former WIPP worker.

DOE is challenging a requirement that Westinghouse, the operating contractor, provide financial assurance, as is done for privately operated hazardous waste facilities nationwide. DOE also opposes a requirement prohibiting placement of mixed radioactive and hazardous wastes in the underground room that already has wastes; some procedures used to ensure that prohibited materials are not shipped to WIPP; and ground water monitoring for radioactive contaminants.

SRIC is challenging the issuance of the permit since the DOE application was based on the premise that no waste would be at WIPP when the permit was issued. SRIC also challenged some specific provisions of the permit as not being stringent enough.

DOE wants its challenges heard in federal court even though New Mexico state law, under which the permit was issued, requires challenges to be heard by the state Court of Appeals. Until a decision is made about which court or courts will hear the cases, no schedules for briefing and the court's final decisions can be set. In addition, DOE and NMED are trying to settle the DOE case.

Another legal action, a lawsuit brought by Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping (CARD) claiming that WIPP is a nuisance, is scheduled for a jury trial in federal court in October. SRIC has also notified DOE and Westinghouse that it will sue if they violate the permit by shipping mixed radioactive and hazardous waste to be disposed in the underground room that already has waste.

Citizens have continued to hold protests and vigils in Colorado and New Mexico. DOE refuses to provide public notice of when shipments will occur, but citizens near Santa Fe and in Artesia hold protest vigils for any shipments they are aware of.

The 1992 law that set requirements for WIPP included a provision that DOE pay New Mexico $20 million a year for 15 years. In retaliation for the financial assurance requirement included in the NMED permit, DOE Secretary Bill Richardson refused to provide this year's $20 million, which has resulted in the State's cancelling road improvements.

Before shipments can come from LANL, INEEL, Hanford, Washington, and Savannah River, South Carolina, each site must show that it can prepare wastes in accordance with the permit. NMED did not require stringent compliance at RFETS before allowing shipments, nor did it provide sufficient time for public comment.

So the WIPP saga will continue with legal actions and court decisions, citizen protests, and continuing problems at DOE sites. And the wastes that were dumped at DOE's sites will remain in the soil, ground water, and rivers, posing a continuing threat to people, plants, and wildlife for thousands of years.

— Don Hancock
Nuclear Waste Program

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