Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Chromium (VI) Release at Hanford

From WA Department of Ecology:

"FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - Sept. 19, 2006 06-189

Ecology Department issues violation notice to U.S. Energy for toxic spill

RICHLAND--The U.S. Department of Energy (Energy) today received notice that it has violated a Hanford cleanup agreement by allowing highly concentrated sodium dichromate to leak onto the ground, potentially threatening workers and the Columbia River. Energy is liable for the violations under the terms of an agreement called the Tri-Party Agreement, among the Department of Ecology (Ecology), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Energy. Ecology Director Jay Manning announced in Richland today that Ecology has issued Energy a notice of violation and expects the EPA to follow up with a monetary penalty. Ecology and the EPA regulate Energy's environmental cleanup at the Hanford site. These violations are a significant concern to Ecology, because the spill occurred near the Columbia River. This area is an extremely valuable and sensitive habitat for spawning salmon and for other species. "Were it to reach the river, pure sodium dichromate would be a huge threat to salmon in the Columbia River," Manning said. "This situation represents a breakdown of oversight, management, compliance, and just plain common sense." Sodium dichromate is a "hexavalent chromium" compound that is considered to be cancer-causing. Sodium dichromate is harmful and can be fatal if inhaled, ingested or absorbed into the skin. According to Ecology reports, an Energy contractor, Washington Closure Hanford LLC (WCH), caused the spill while excavating pipelines in the 100-D nuclear reactor area, along the Columbia River. The 100-D and 100-DR nuclear reactors operated from 1944 to 1967. When operating, the nuclear reactors were cooled by Columbia River water that passed through the reactor cores. Sodium dichromate was added to the river water to inhibit corrosion of the cooling system pipelines. In June 2006, WCH began excavating pipelines that had delivered pure sodium dichromate for the D Reactors. Last year, similar work at a nearby reactor revealed high concentrations of chromium in soil when digging up a similar pipeline. Despite this previous experience, workers had only one appropriate container for the thousands of tons of soil contaminated by chromium. They had no way to contain the more than 30 gallons of red and green liquids that leaked out of the ruptured pipes. Ecology has required Energy to dig up soil contaminated by the liquid, treat it to reduce the hazard, and dispose of it in an approved, lined landfill. Ecology's investigation determined that WCH failed to comply with numerous requirements in work plans previously approved by Ecology and the EPA. The violations by WCH include: workers breached the old pipelines, caused a release of highly toxic waste, failed to take adequate samples, and failed to provide required notification to Energy and the state. After excavating the material and containing a portion of it, the workers buried some of the chromium-laced soil back into the ground within a quarter of a mile of the Columbia River. Although WCH previously encountered chromium hazards at another similar Hanford location, they failed to anticipate it at the 100-D dig site. WCH failed to plan for the hazards and their potential effect. These breakdowns in the WCH safety-management system may have exposed workers to chromium at higher than allowable levels. Washington state does not have authority over worker safety at Hanford. Under federal law, Energy is self-regulating for worker safety at its sites around the nation. The federal agency is responsible for ensuring that its contractors comply with occupational health and safety requirements. "Ecology is very concerned about potential threats to worker health and safety as well as to the environment," said Manning. "We have referred these concerns to Energy for correction." ###

Contacts: Jani Gilbert, public information manager, 509-329-3495; cell, 509-990-9177 Jane Hedges, nuclear waste program manager, 509-372-7905 John Price, project manager, environmental restoration, 509-372-7921"