Environmentalists worry Utah regulators let violations at radioactive waste site ‘fly under the radar’

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) David Squires, general manager at Clive Operations for EnergySolutions, seen here on April 2, 2015, stands next to an area ready to accept large quantities of depleted uranium. Utah environmentalists have raised concerns about a recent settlement between state regulators and the Salt Lake City-based company over violations to its state operating permit.

Some Utah environmentalists have expressed concern about a proposed settlement between state regulators and a hazardous waste disposal site located in Tooele County.

The state Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control wants EnergySolutions to pay more than $50,000 in penalties — a hefty fine that will require special approval — after the company repeatedly violated the terms of its permit at its Clive waste disposal facility.

Environmental advocates at HEAL Utah endorse those financial penalties but are questioning why the issue is only coming to light now, given that EnergySolutions reported the problem to state regulators in 2015.

EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker said a new manager at the company discovered in 2015 that employees had failed to apply a chemical coating to some of the hazardous waste disposal cells at the Clive facility. The coating is intended to prevent dust from blowing away from areas of recently disturbed soil.

EnergySolutions does not believe any hazardous materials escaped from the cells as a result of the oversight, Walker said.

While the cells in question contain radioactive materials, that debris is enclosed in concrete to prevent contamination from spreading before the cells are buried, said Scott Anderson, director of the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control.

EnergySolutions is supposed to apply a chemical coating to recently disturbed cells as a precautionary measure, Anderson said, to prevent loose dirt from blowing away and becoming an air-quality problem when the wind picks up.

Anderson said the relatively large monetary fine reflected the fact that state inspectors found EnergySolutions had failed to apply the coating 11 times over a two-year period.

“The repeated nature of the violation drove the penalty up,” Anderson said, adding that a one-time violation would have drawn a fine of less than $5,000.

Walker said EnergySolutions reported the problem to state regulators as soon as it was discovered. Company employees have since received additional training, he said.

But Scott Williams, executive director of HEAL Utah, said the incident “flew under the radar” for more than two years after EnergySolutions reported the violation.

“At the time that the violation was reported, there was no mention of it” by state regulators, Williams said. “To me it speaks to the fact that we don’t really have sufficient oversight at that facility. It shouldn’t have taken two years for this to be identified.”

Williams said he was concerned about the lack of oversight at EnergySolutions because the company has asked for permission to accept a contract to dispose of depleted uranium. Although depleted uranium is a low-level radioactive waste similar to other materials the Clive facility currently handles, the depleted uranium waste stream would gradually become more radioactive over time.

This latest incident, Williams said, “is an example that things can go wrong, and if they can go wrong with things that are more dangerous, it could have serious consequences.”

While he said he believed state regulators were “serious about doing their job,” he warned that the state Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control was understaffed and underfunded.

EnergySolution’s radioactive-materials handling license remains under state review. Although the company applied for a renewal when that permit expired in 2013, the division has not yet issued the company a new permit.

Anderson, the division’s director, said that aside from the 2015 violation, EnergySolutions has a good track record when it comes to abiding by the terms of its permits.

Because the proposed penalties exceed $25,000, the state Waste Management and Radiation Control Board will have to approve the settlement amount before the fines become final. The deal is also subject to a public review. Interested parties may submit their comments on the settlement via email to dwmrcpublic@utah.gov.

Comments are due by January 29.