Workers at the Hanford Site violated multiple state laws and regulations in August when they dumped thousands of gallons of contaminated water straight into the soil.
Videos and internal records obtained by the KING 5 Investigators document three separate incidents where liquid was dumped from large metal boxes that were marked as containing radioactive materials.
The workers seen dumping rainwater from the containers were employed by Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), the prime contractor managing tens of millions of gallons of highly radioactive and toxic waste stored at the 586-square-mile site in southeastern Washington.
“In nearly 25 years of working here I’ve never seen anything like that,” said one Hanford worker, who saw the video but did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation by managers.
Decades of plutonium production at Hanford left behind significant amounts of radioactive and chemical waste, making it the most contaminated spot in the Western Hemisphere and prompting a decades-long, multi-billion-dollar clean-up effort.
“The soils under Hanford are extensively contaminated over a broad, broad area. The one thing you don’t want to do is create more waste sites,” said Salem, Ore.-based Dirk Dunning, a chemical engineer and Hanford expert.
Adding to the serious nature of the dumping activity, WRPS appeared to want to keep the events out of the public eye.
“They tried to keep it a secret,” said a Hanford worker with firsthand knowledge of the events.
The company did not notify the Washington State Department of Ecology in a timely fashion, which is a legal requirement. As stated in a legally binding State Waste Discharge Permit, dumping of the kind “must be reported to Ecology within 24 hours.”
Ecology received official notification of the events nearly a month after they occurred, and only after KING 5 made email inquiries to federal and state officials, WRPS, and the Environmental Crimes Unit of the state Office of the Attorney General.
“They knew it was wrong (to dump the liquids) but they did it anyway. They were hoping no one would question it. They definitely knew it should have been reported,” said another veteran WRPS employee with firsthand knowledge of what happened.
WRPS didn’t respond to a request to be interviewed for this report. But approached by the KING 5 Investigators outside company headquarters, a top executive, Rob Cantwell, WRPS manager of Environment Safety Health and Quality said, “We didn’t do anything that was inappropriate…I’m not sure that you understand all of the facts.”
After consultation with environmental legal experts, the KING 5 Investigators found the August dumping by WRPS workers violated several state and federal laws, including the following:
· Discharge of liquids not allowed.
· A permit must be obtained prior to dumping liquids.
· Immediate notification must be made to regulators.
· Wastewater discharge incident must be reported within 24 hours.
· Dumped liquids must have a plan for sampling.
· Adequate records must be kept when a cleanup of a discharge occurs.
· Water collected in a structure must be analyzed prior to discharge.
“It’s a crime. I’m convinced by looking at this (video) that you’re witnessing a criminal violation of several statutes, not just one,” said state Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle), executive director of the advocacy group, Heart of America Northwest.
State law (RCW 90.48.140) states that it is a crime, a gross misdemeanor, if "Any person (is) found guilty of willfully violating (the law prohibiting the discharge of toxic liquids into the water or soil.)
Tossing out contaminated liquids without permission via a state issued permit became illegal at Hanford in the early 1990’s after Heart of America Northwest sued the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractor at the time and won.
“Of course it’s illegal to dump any liquid waste,” said Pollet. “This is the kind of thing that caused Hanford to be the most contaminated place in the Western Hemisphere in the first place. I am shocked to see something like this in 2017. It’s outrageous.”
How Hanford became worst environmental disaster in the country
Dumping contaminated materials without regard for the environment, the workforce or the public was commonplace for 50 years at Hanford. While the workers were producing plutonium to make nuclear bombs during World War II and throughout the Cold War, they were also creating billions of gallons of toxic, liquid byproducts from the production process.
The Department of Energy, which owns the site, estimates that 444-billion gallons of radioactive and chemically contaminated liquids were discharged, on purpose, onto the ground and into the Columbia River. That’s the equivalent of 700,000 Olympic size swimming pools full of poisonous water. Some of that has made it into the groundwater.
“The state of Washington, you and I, own the groundwater underneath Hanford so they’re contaminating our very incredibly valuable resource when they dump waste,” said Pollet. “For 30 years we’re saying ‘we’re cleaning up Hanford, the old days are done with. We don’t dump out the back 40 anymore, and we are cleaning up the mistakes of the past,’ and when you’re spending billions of dollars to clean it up and you’re under such scrutiny it is totally shocking to me to see such disdain for basic environmental protection standards.”
Documents obtained by KING 5 show that in mid-August WRPS workers realized they had a problem. For several months they’d been working on a project to dig up and safely store highly contaminated underground nuclear waste hoses. The job was to retrieve 18 hoses and place them in massive, yet contaminated, boxes - then transport them to a nuclear waste dump in the center of the Hanford site.
But on August 15 they found rainwater had accidentally leaked into at least one box, requiring them to halt the project. Two days later, instead of following state and federal laws by testing the water, pumping it out into appropriate containers for disposal or getting new boxes altogether, a crew dumped the full container of water straight into the ground.
Six days later, it happened again. This time employees dumped water from two containers needed for the nuclear hoses – again without testing the water first, consulting the Department of Ecology, or obtaining a wastewater discharge permit.
Financial documents obtained by KING present a possible motive. The Department of Energy had agreed to pay $58,000 for each hose safely disposed of in the boxes at hand. If all the hoses were dug up and put in boxes by September 30, WRPS would earn $1,050,000. The clock to meet the deadline was ticking and boxes full of water were obstacles to meeting it.
“Absolutely, they needed the boxes. I think it’s business as usual. They’re (the contractors) are here for the money and that’s it,” said a longtime Hanford worker with detailed knowledge of the events.
“That’s been the pattern at Hanford for decades. This (bonus) fee structure ignores human nature which is to take short cuts to get the money without any accountability unless they get caught. That’s the story of Hanford: a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of the citizen watch-dog group, Hanford Challenge.
Internal state emails show that the Department of Ecology was in the dark about the water dumping until they received an inquiry from KING 5 on September 8. The next business day, September 11, Ecology managers were trying to sort out what had happened via email. “FYI: Mysterious compliance issue that came from Susannah Frame,” wrote Ron Skinnarland, the state’s Waste Management Section Manager at Hanford.
On September 13, a team of Ecology inspectors launched an investigation with an unannounced site visit where they took several soil samples from the first water dumping location. Some of the toxins they tested for include arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, lead, fluorene, azobenzene, benzoic acid and methylphenol. WRPS sources said the company did not test for any heavy metals or chemicals.
“Anytime we initiate an inspection, we think it’s something we should take seriously. We want to make sure we get the facts right and that’s what we’re doing in this case,” said John Price, the state’s compliance manager at Hanford.
WRPS did survey both dumping locations for radioactivity and found beta gamma radioactive contamination at one of the sites. At the site contaminated with radioactivity, WRPS had cleaned up the area on August 30, before the notification to the Dept. of Ecology so in that case the state was not able to test for toxic chemicals and heavy metals at that location.
On Thursday afternoon, Price sent an email to say the preliminary results from the location they could survey showed no toxic chemicals were detected on the soil and the heavy metals were found in concentrations that would not designate a hazardous waste.
After the site visit, Ecology sent a document to WRPS with follow up questions, including, “Why was the Washington Department of Ecology not notified of (the) discharges?”
“Timely reporting is one of the requirements of the regulations,” Price said. “We would ask for their explanation and there may be a legitimate explanation, I don’t know.”
WRPS told state investigators that during the August 17 dumping event, they discharged 200 gallons from a contaminated box. Witnesses said the container – capable of holding 6,000 gallons of liquid – was full and that all the liquids were dumped.
“That’s just wrong. That’s silly. If they’re going to drain a container like that they need to at least have said what they actually did,” Dunning.
The official notification also attempted to defend the August 21 dumping events. The WRPS authors wrote the incident was “authorized as a miscellaneous discharge (as per the legally binding State Waste Discharge Permit).”
But the dumping was not a “miscellaneous discharge.” The Permit is clear that “miscellaneous discharges does not include noncompliance to the extent caused by…lack of preventive maintenance.” It was lack of preventive maintenance that caused the containers to fill with liquids. That is never supposed to happen as it creates the scenario to produce more toxic waste at a site where clean up in the sole mission.
Ecology’s investigation is ongoing. The state expects to issue a report within three months. The outcome could include a “finding of violation,” the issuance of an order, which is a formal enforcement action, and a financial penalty could be assessed.
KING 5 has learned that the Environmental Crimes Unit of the state Office of the Attorney General is interested in viewing the video obtained by KING, but would not confirm if they had initiated an investigation.
The Hanford cleanup is decades behind schedule and billions over budget. Some of the problems such as leaking underground nuclear waste holding tanks are massive compared to the water dumping captured on video. But experts said the if the culture at Hanford allows for violations such as these to take place out in the open, what else is going on we don’t know about?
“It’s a huge deal. It reveals a callous attitude of environmental compliance. If it’s happening here, it’s happening in other places where no one took a video. It’s indicative of a culture that created the worst contaminated facility in the United States,” said Hanford Challenge’s Carpenter.
Late Thursday, WRPS sent an email to say they are cooperating with the state’s investigation.
“We have conducted a thorough evaluation of the activities and are fully cooperating with the Washington Department of Ecology in its review. As part of our continuous-improvement effort, we are working with the U.S. Department of Energy and Ecology to strengthen our procedures,” wrote Peter Bengtson, WRPS Communications and Public Relations manager.