Utah Senate leader rages at lax nuke waste oversight
A Senate leader Tuesday raised the possibility of disbanding the Department of Environmental Quality and firing Utah's top radiation-control official after auditors raised numerous concerns about the state's oversight of low-level radioactive waste.
Senate President Mike Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, flayed state regulators for their tepid response to new reports by the Legislative Auditor General's Office that suggested the state relies too heavily on others including the regulated companies, other states and the federal government for enforcing Utah's waste control laws.
He pointed to auditors' findings that the state didn't find out that highly contaminated waste including class C waste banned by state law had come to the EnergySolutions disposal site in Tooele County until the company notified regulators. He also criticized the agency for allowing 23 canisters of the too-hazardous waste to remain buried in Utah's west desert and for assessing fines too small to be a deterrent to offenders.
"You've got some big problems," Waddoups angrily told DEQ Director Amanda Smith and Division of Radiation Control Director Rusty Lundberg, who appeared before the Legislative Audit Subcommittee on which Waddoups serves as co-chairman.
"We thought you had a level of expertise that exceeded ours," Waddoups added. "I'm starting to wonder about that."
A year in the making, the audit said current practices make it impossible to know if privately owned and operated EnergySolutions is burying outlawed wastes such as foreign-generated material and the class B & C wastes banned in the state since 2005.
Auditors said the radiation division needs independent verification that waste coming to Utah is what shippers say it is, including shipments from U.S. Department of Energy cleanups. Auditors also said regulators needed to fundamentally shift their approach, adopting Utah-specific practices to address unique laws, such as the B&C waste ban.
The audit team also said regulators should take a more active role in tracking the origin of waste, especially processed waste from an EnergySolutions plant in Tennessee where foreign waste is also handled.
"We believe regulators can trust," said auditor Darin Underwood, "but they must also verify the waste."
State regulators said they focus on ensuring that shipping containers are intact after their trip to Tooele County and that waste is buried according to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards, they said. They rely on EnergySolutions and its customers to guarantee that waste coming to Utah complies with the state bans and to report mistakes, Smith and Lundberg said.
EnergySolutions is one of the biggest players in political campaign fundraising in Utah donating more than $600,000 to politicians and political action committees (PACs) in the last five years.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, who controls PACs that received more than $11,000 from EnergySolutions so far this year, was more subdued than Waddoups, her co-chairman on the audit panel. She asked a few questions but refrained from condemning the state or company over the critical findings.
Auditors noted that 37 containers of higher hazard waste came to Utah improperly in recent years. (Class A waste remains radiologically hazardous for around 100 years, according to the NRC, while class B waste is significantly dangerous for 300 years and class C waste remains hazardous for around 500 years.) Both B and C classes of waste are banned in Utah.
Fourteen of the containers of hotter waste were returned to their senders. Regulators, though, decided to allow 23 of those containers 17 of them class C to remain in place and issued fines of, in most cases, $5,000 or less. The auditors cited the decision as a worrisome precedent that could lead to additional violations of the hotter-waste ban.
In a statement, EnergySolutions said it is "committed to not disposing of B and C" or foreign waste in Utah.
The mile-square disposal Utah site has taken more than 97 percent of all the waste that has gone to the nation's five commercial disposal sites in the past two decades, according the U.S. Energy Department.
Auditors noted that the state's charge has changed in recent years, as EnergySolutions accepts more highly radioactive waste than ever before, including "containerized" waste so concentrated that it is handled by robots and should not be opened for checking. Auditors found that, while less waste came to Utah during the past four years, the radiation content of that waste has more than doubled.
The regulators said they welcomed auditors' suggestions and may apply cost-benefit analyses to some of them.
"We are in the process of assembling a team of radiation safety experts within the state and elsewhere for an independent review of the audit and how best we can proceed forward to implementing the recommendations," Smith said in a statement. "We are prepared to continue improvements to our regulatory oversight to enhance our mission of protection of public health and the environment."
The state Tax Commission said it supported the auditors' suggestions and will work on finding a better way to track the tax receipts.
Though critical of auditors for prying into a private company's business, EnergySolutions echoed those sentiment, saying it complies "with all tax laws and welcome[s] an audit by the State Tax Commission."
"We support the audit recommendations," the company added, "and will comply with any additional DRC rules implemented as a result of this process."
Reaction to the reports were swift.
Utah Rep. Jim Matheson said he has been concerned for years about the state's oversight system and numerous attempts to allow more hazardous waste.
"I'm gratified to see that independent auditors have now concluded that additional quality controls are needed to verify that banned levels of radioactive waste are not coming in to Utah."
Members of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah attended Tuesday's hearing. Executive Director Christopher Thomas said that, "there is no accountability" for EnergySolutions.
"The system is broken," he said, "and it's the Utah public paying the price."
EnergySolutions a generous campaign contributor
The Salt Lake City based corporation has donated more than $600,000 to politicians, parties and PACs in the last five years.
So far this year (through the end of August) the company has handed out $89,250 in campaign checks.
Among the biggest beneficiaries this year:
• $25,000 to the Utah Republican Party
• $17,000 to the Utah Democratic Party
• $11,500 to political action committees controlled by House Speaker and Audit Subcommittee co-chairwoman Becky Lockhart)
• and another $5,000 to the political action committee of Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
Source: Utah Elections Office, campaign disclosures