State Penalizes Nuclear Plant for Mishandling Hazardous Waste

After 2000, as the Columbia Generating Station’s performed poorly, its owner, Energy Northwest, conjured up several slogans meant to improve worker pride in the job and change company culture. “Quest for Excellence,” “Trek 2 Excellence,” and “Excellence in Performance” were just some of the catch phrases they created.

However, excellence was not a word that the Washington Department of Ecology used following a six week investigation in 2007 of the plant’s hazardous waste handling practices. The Department fined the plant $120,000 on eight counts of violating state hazardous waste handling laws.

By Paul Koberstein
and Robin Klein

The state Pollution Control Hearings Board reduced the penalty by a third on appeal. In its ruling, the board underscored the irony that a nuclear power plant, which routinely handles highly dangerous radioactive wastes, would mishandle wastes that were merely hazardous in a casual, reckless manner.

“Energy Northwest manages a large and complex facility that generates many types of dangerous and extremely hazardous wastes,” the board said in its ruling. “It should be sophisticated and without error in the handling of such wastes.”

The following information is based on the pollution control board’s findings of fact:

Dangerous waste is generated at the nuclear plant during maintenance and in a laboratory. The waste includes oils and greases, chemicals, and wastes from painting or coating various parts and components at the nuclear plant. The nuclear plant also recovers certain solvents at the site. Some hazardous wastes are sent off-site for treatment, while other wastes are disposed at the plant. The Department of Ecology considers the nuclear plant a generator of a large quantity of such wastes.

The violations occurred at both the nuclear power plant and at a nearby industrial site which had been the location of another nuclear plant that Energy Northwest failed to finish and then terminated during the 1980s when it was known as the Washington Public Power Supply System.

The Department of Ecology conducted cursory inspections of the plant in 2000 and 2005 and found problems. A deeper investigation in 2007 uncovered the violations. Inspectors found about 30 containers of unknown chemicals in a laboratory. Handwritten labels did not identify the contents of these containers as dangerous waste, or identify the risk to workers that may have come into contact with them.

The pollution control board said Columbia demonstrated “a lack of awareness of the basic elements of hazardous waste management, including proper designation, labeling, and storage.”

Several violations occurred in June 2007 during an outage at the plant for refueling, when about 1,500 temporary workers were hired to paint a large number of surfaces and lubricate equipment. “Such activities generate more than the typical quantity of waste at the site,” the board said.

Inspectors found abandoned dangerous wastes and unmarked containers of hazardous materials throughout the site. Unidentified chemical materials had leaked onto shelving. Some flammable materials were stored near the reactor. Inspectors also found evidence of unknown hazardous spills. Documentation of these spills was nowhere to be found. Energy Northwest also failed to report them to the state environmental agency when they occurred, as required.

Inspectors determined that Energy Northwest employees were performing dangerous waste management duties without the proper training, another violation of the law.

“The improper storage of these hazardous materials is a serious violation,” said Jane Hedges, Nuclear Waste Program manager for the Department of Ecology. “The unacceptable training of employees, the lack of reporting of spills of dangerous substances into the environment and the improper storage of waste escalated our concerns about lack of management and safety oversight at Energy Northwest.”

Energy Northwest appealed fines as excessive but did not deny any of the allegations. And it said it wouldn’t happen again.

“Energy Northwest has acted in good faith both during and after the inspection by taking immediate corrective and preventive actions in response to issues raised,” the company said in a filing before the Pollution Control Hearings Board.

But the Department of Ecology and the hearings board considered the failure to be a breakdown in waste management procedures and found that the conditions at the nuclear plant warranted the penalties.

Paul Koberstein