Feds reach settlement with New Mexico over nuclear waste radiation leak

BySusan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn, center, announces a $73 million settlement between the state and the U.S. Department of Energy while flanked by Gov. Susana Martinez and state Transportation Secretary Tom Church during a news conference in Albuquerque N.M., on Thursday, April 30, 2015. The settlement resolves a dispute over permit violations that stemmed from a radiation release at the federal government's nuclear waste repository. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The Energy Department will funnel more than $73 million toward road and water projects around New Mexico as part of a settlement over a radiation leak that forced the indefinite closure of a troubled nuclear waste dump.

The agreement, announced by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and state Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn, follows months of tense and slow negotiations.

The settlement is the largest ever reached between a state and the department, Flynn said, noting that the agency needed to be held accountable for putting people at risk.

"We have a shared responsibility to protect the citizens that work at these facilities as well as the communities that host these facilities," Flynn told The Associated Press.

The state initially levied more than $54 million in penalties against the agency and its contractors for numerous permit violations at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant that were identified following the repository's shutdown.

The newly announced settlement comes after a drum of waste was inappropriately packed with incompatible ingredients at Los Alamos and shipped to the repository, starting a chemical reaction and radiation leak on Feb. 14, 2014.

Federal investigators determined it could have been prevented.

On May 30, an entry team collected several samples from the WIPP underground, as part of the ongoing effort to determine the cause of the drum breach. Collections included magnesium oxide (MgO) samples taken near the breached drum in Room 7, Panel 7, and a sample of material believed to have originated from the breached drum. Additional MgO samples were also taken from various locations around the waste stacks.

Poor management at multiple levels, lapses in safety and a lack of proper procedures combined to cause the radiation release, they said in a report this month.

The Energy Department and the head of the Los Alamos lab say they're working to ensure greater oversight of the handling and disposal of radioactive waste. The settlement requires the department to follow through with corrective measures.

Department Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement that the projects outlined in the settlement will benefit New Mexico communities and will not detract from cleanup at Los Alamos or the Waste Isolation site.

Most of the infrastructure spending outlined in the settlement is expected to come from the bonuses and other incentive pay the department withheld from Los Alamos and Waste Isolation contractors in the wake of the radiation release.

The agency will seek adequate funding for any difference needed in future fiscal years as part of the regular federal budget process.

Some watchdogs were concerned with the settlement.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, suggested the agreement is self-serving since the department and its contractors are the ones who use the roads that will see improvements. "In short, DOE and its contractors completely rolled the state," Mello said.

More than half of the settlement funds will pay for repairs and improvements for roads in southeastern New Mexico that are used to haul waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Another $12 million will go to roads in and around Los Alamos.

Nearly $20 million will go toward water projects in Los Alamos, from replacing old drinking water lines to monitoring and controlling storm runoff from the canyons surrounding the lab.

There's also funding for a new emergency operations center in Carlsbad and training for first responders and mining rescue teams.

Nearly $3 million will be used for a triennial review of all operations at the lab, and the repository to ensure state and federal requirements are being met and policies are being followed.

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