New Mexico Fines Feds $54 Million for Radiation Leaks at Los Alamos and WIPP

New Mexico Environment Department levies $54 million in fines against WIPP and Los Alamos National Laboratory for radiation leak.

Citing numerous violations of state hazardous waste permits, the New Mexico Environment Department has levied $54 million in fines against Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) for the February explosion and radiation leak that exposed more than a dozen workers to contamination and shut down the country’s only underground nuclear storage facility indefinitely.

It’s the biggest civil penalty ever levied by state authorities against the federal government, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

“New Mexico is proud of our national labs and cutting-edge scientific facilities, and we have important rules in place to protect those facilities, the people who work there, and all New Mexicans,” said Governor Susana Martinez in a December 6 statement announcing the fines. “The health and safety of New Mexicans will always be our priority, and we have to hold federal agencies accountable for safe operations in the state of New Mexico. The federal Department of Energy is a strong partner with us, and we will continue to work with them closely to ensure their success in our state.”

The fines resulted from more than nine months of investigation into the February 2014 pair of incidents, the New Mexico Environment Department said in its statement. The state’s findings generated a total of 13 violations at WIPP, with penalties of $17.7 million, and 24 violations at Los Alamos, with penalties of $36.6 million.

In levying the fines, the state confirmed “the existence of major procedural problems that contributed to these events, and also found a less than adequate response,” the agency said in its statement.

The trouble started last February 5, when an underground truck fire forced evacuations at WIPP. On February 14 a waste drum ruptured and radiation leaked out, exposing more than 20 workers to the contamination, according to a timeline in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

WIPP was shut down indefinitely, with a potential cleanup cost of more than $500 million, according to the Department of Energy, which oversees the two facilities. Reports surfacing over the course of this year indicate numerous violations of safety procedures, as well as attempts to hide those lapses.

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“These civil penalties follow a thorough investigation and are important to ensuring the continued safety and success of these important facilities,” said New Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment, Ryan Flynn, in the statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with the federal government to ensure the safety and success of both LANL and WIPP.”

The environment department also said the facilities could not use federal money that is earmarked for the environmental cleanup and operations at Los Alamos and WIPP for paying the penalties. New Mexico also demanded that the feds submit regular compliance updates over the next two months.

“DOE has an opportunity to demonstrate future compliance, which could trigger penalty reductions if DOE can assure New Mexicans of safe future operations,” the environment department said in its statement.

The fines could also be amplified, since these dealt only with what is concretely known, Flynn said.

“We were intentionally very conservative,” Flynn told the Albuquerque Journal. “The actions you see today are related to very clear-cut violations of the permit that have already been self-disclosed by LANL and WIPP or are self-evident. There is not a lot of room for interpretation.”