Lab to Build Nuclear Waste Complex Without Environmental Review
by Marylia Kelley
Despite Livermore Lab's long history of toxic and radioactive spills, leaks, accidents and releases, the state of California has just given the Lab a green light to build a huge, new nuclear waste treatment complex in Livermore.
Further, the state regulatory agency, called the Dept. of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), rebuffed Tri-Valley CAREs' request that it undertake a stringent, independent environmental review of the Livermore Lab's hazardous waste practices before making its decision. Our goal was two-fold: to ensure that the affected community had ample opportunity to be heard in the decision, and, equally important, to improve conditions at the Lab in order to protect workers, the public and the environment from additional contamination.
Instead, DTSC approved a permit for Livermore Lab to construct and operate a new hazardous and radioactive waste treatment complex, and to do it without undergoing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the appropriate review procedure for this type of state-level decision.
Specifically, on May 27, 1999, DTSC issued a final "Hazardous Waste Facility Permit," also referred to as a Part B permit, in essence giving its blessing to the nuclear waste facility, after conducting only a preliminary "Initial Study" on Livermore Lab's permit application. According to DTSC records, the Initial Study relied on an old 1992 Lab report - which had been done by the Dept. of Energy, the Lab's parent agency. On that flimsy, and hardly independent, basis, DTSC issued a "negative declaration," certifying that a new nuclear waste facility at the Lab could not possibly have a negative impact. The permit is a "federal equivalent," meaning DTSC, as the state agency, has the final authority.
Our "watchdog" efforts
Tri-Valley CAREs has been active on this issue since 1985, when we offered comments to the state at the first public meeting ever held on hazardous waste at Livermore Lab. Since that time, our research has uncovered numerous volumes' worth of evidence- showing the dangers, contamination incidents and worker injuries that have happened as a result of the Lab's waste treatment and storage operations. While our monitoring efforts have led Livermore to curtail certain practices, such as the use of a semi-trailer for dumping "unknown chemicals," many problems remain unresolved. These present and future health threats are why we must continue to insist that a comprehensive, independent review be performed before a new waste complex is built.
In 1997, Tri-Valley CAREs, with 40 of its members and friends, commented extensively on the Lab's proposed new waste facility. DTSC has now released its "Response to Comments" from that public hearing and comment period. We are in the process of studying the 170-page response document carefully, but some things stand out immediately. Nearly every member of the public offered clear and compelling reasons why DTSC should do an Environmental Impact Report before making a permit decision.
Shockingly, this DTSC response, found on page 7, is typical: "An EIR is not appropriate where an Initial Study has determined no significant impacts to the environment. It is speculative to assume that the management of hazardous waste in storage and treatment units will be a potential source of releases..."
Hardly. Tri-Valley CAREs members presented ample evidence that DTSC should consider just such a situation. Our testimonies listed dozens of recent accidents involving hazardous or radioactive wastes, including: an underground tank leak sending radioactive tritium into the soil and groundwater; a worker who lost part of his thumb when doctors extracted a sliver of plutonium; two workers who were contaminated with tritium while packaging radioactive wastes; three workers contaminated during a filter shredding operation, including one who received internal contamination; twenty five workers who had to be evacuated when a waste bulking operation resulted in reddish fumes filling the room; fourteen hazardous releases above wastewater permit levels to the City's sewage treatment plant over a one year period, and on and on.
DTSC responded that, "these accidents do not support a fair argument that significant impacts to the environment may occur from the permitting of the specific hazardous waste management facilities covered by the Part B Permit" (page 69). The state comes very close to saying the accidents would have had to occur in a facility that hasn't been built yet in order for them to be deemed relevant.
Specifically regarding the filter shredding accident, DTSC says: "The shredder involved in this occurrence has been taken out of service because it was heavily contaminated with radioactivity. A new shredder will be installed as part of the Project." (page 73). DTSC misses the point, here.
In the end, DTSC made only a few changes in the permit language to address what are truly major problems.
What the Permit Allows
According the "Hazardous Waste Facility Permit" signed by DTSC, Livermore Lab will be able to store up to 808,000 gallons of hazardous and radioactive mixed waste on-site at any given time (page 12). Further, Livermore would be allowed to build new facilities and "treat" about 300,000 pounds of solid and 400,000 gallons of liquid hazardous and radioactive mixed waste each year of operation (Table 1).
The permit's Table 2, "Typical Waste Streams," includes: radioactive acidic rinse waters, radioactive halogenated solvents, scrap metals with transuranic (plutonium) activity, highly dissolved solids from cleanup of chemical spills and leaky drums, and so on in a list that goes on for 13 pages.
Typical treatment facilities, according to the permit, will include such things as: Solidification Unit, Shredding Unit, Centrifuge Unit, Freezer Unit, Roll-Off Bin, Tank Farm, Reactive Waste Processing, Pressure Reactor, Water Reactor, Amalgamation Reactor and Uranium Bleaching Unit, among others.
The new Waste Treatment Facility will be built just north of the National Ignition Facility construction site, near Greenville Road, and will involve about a dozen buildings, storage pads etc.
The DTSC permit covers hazardous and mixed radioactive wastes caused by Lab operations. Livermore Lab also generates "purely" radioactive wastes that are not counted in the numbers listed above because they are regulated by the Dept. of Energy, and not by the state. DTSC, in its public statement, notes that the Lab has been generating these wastes for years. While true, the state again begs the point.
The Lab's history of problems, combined with the continuing dangers, should compel DTSC to conduct additional environmental review, not reward bad practice with a permit!
Tri-Valley CAREs is evaluating its next course of action. If you are interested in helping - whether you can hand out leaflets, use a law library or offer financial support - call Marylia at (925) 443-7148.