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State investigates possibly contaminated liquid dumped at Hanford

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 28, 2017, 10:20 p.m.

Signs are posted by the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Benton County, in Richland, Wash. (Manuel Valdes / AP)
Signs are posted by the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Benton County, in Richland, Wash. (Manuel Valdes / AP)

RICHLAND – The Washington State Department of Ecology is investigating a report of potentially contaminated liquid dumped into the ground at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in August.

Initial analyses of soil samples collected where the liquid was dumped found no contamination above background levels, said Randy Bradbury, spokesman for the Department of Ecology, a Hanford regulator.

Washington River Protection Solutions, the Hanford nuclear reservation’s tank farm contractor, notified the state of the incident, but not until a couple of weeks after it happened. It is required to report incidents immediately, Bradbury said.

The tank farm contractor believes it did not violate state regulations, said Peter Bengtson, spokesman for Washington River Protection Solutions.

“WRPS and workers take protecting the environment and the public very seriously,” he said. “The incident caused no harm to the environment.”

In mid-August tank farm workers collected two empty, dumpster-like containers that had been sitting outside, each covered with a tarp, for a couple of years. Workers planned to use the containers to package some radioactive waste for disposal.

The containers were used in the past, likely to haul low-level radioactive waste to a central Hanford landfill. The waste would have been enclosed inside a plastic wrap before it was placed in the container, and containers would typically have been washed out before they were set aside.

Workers found liquid in the two containers, which may have been from rain and snow. The tank farm contractor may legally discharge stormwater, which would be water from precipitation.

Workers chose to pour the liquid into the ground, first piling up some low dirt berms to form a sort of bowl to contain where the water flowed.

After they poured out the water, they sampled the wet soil for contamination and found nothing.

Then they repeated the process with two more containers.

But this time the sampling found soil with some spots of contamination, reportedly at levels too low to legally require reporting.

The saturated soil was dug up and packaged for disposal in four 55-gallon drums.

“We took a very thorough and conservative approach” in our response, Bengtson said.

It’s not clear why the workers chose that method for disposing of the liquid.

The contractor is working with the Department of Energy and the Department of Ecology to improve its processes, Bengtson said.

The state review is ongoing, with no conclusion reached. It will issue a report, which could be a available in a couple of months. Its deadline is 150 days from notification to complete an investigation, but reports are usually issued sooner.

“We treat this kind of thing seriously until we determine what happened,” Bradbury said.


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