Soil with mercury dumped at Hanford landfill

Source: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com, September 1, 2007

A government watchdog group is urging an investigation of a contractor at the Hanford nuclear reservation after soil contaminated with mercury was mistakenly dumped in a landfill.

There have been problems in the past at the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility, a landfill that holds radioactive and hazardous chemical waste. It is operated by contractor Washington Closure Hanford under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy, which manages cleanup of the highly contaminated Hanford site.

The latest incident was uncovered by the Government Accountability Project, a government watchdog and whistle-blower protection group, through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In an 18-page letter, the group urged the Energy Department to open an independent, full-scale investigation of the company and to hold it accountable.

“We take any safety-related allegation very seriously,” Colleen French, an Energy Department spokeswoman, told the Tri-City Herald.

“On first review, the issues raised in the letter appear to be ones we’re aware of and have dealt with already. But we are looking at it in detail and discussing appropriate next steps.”

On May 17, employees of a Washington Closure subcontractor emptied two loads of mercury-contaminated soil marked for treatment into the landfill. The waste has since been removed, Washington Closure said in a letter to employees.

“It was a serious operational lapse,” said Dave Einan, environmental engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency. But “they responded appropriately once they found it. They have taken the right kind of steps to prevent it happening again.”

The Environmental Protection Agency fined the Energy Department $1.14 million over earlier problems at the landfill. However, EPA has seen continued improvements at the landfill this year for safer and more effective operation, said Nick Ceto, EPA’s Hanford program manager.

Other problems cited by the watchdog group included sodium dichromate spills into the soil last summer that were not immediately reported to regulators or handled correctly; a spread of radioactive tritium outside of a work area in January; and electrical safety near-misses before September 2006.

Most of the problems, particularly many of the most serious incidents, occurred before Chuck Spencer stepped in as president of Washington Closure in January. He was named after a week marred by serious problems, which included a discovery that a subcontractor’s employee had falsified test results at the landfill.

The federal government created Hanford in the 1940s as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.

Today, it is the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, with cleanup costs expected to top $50 billion.

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