DOE reports show WIPP chemical exposure months before workers got sick

Employees fell ill while working both underground and at the service

BY ADRIAN C HEDDEN | Carlsbad Current-Argus

Video by Wochit


Story Highlights
– DOE expressed concerns for WIPP’s airflow months before incidents

– Emplacement and shipments were halted for two weeks in October to address the problem

A federal investigation into operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad was announced last month, after workers in the underground and on the surface were allegedly exposed to dangerous chemical and excessive heat.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Enterprise Assessments’ Office of Enforcement announced the investigation on Jan. 29 in a letter to Bruce Covert, president and project manager of Nuclear Waste Partnership – the DOE-hired contractor that oversees daily operations at WIPP.

The DOE also requested documents from NWP to support the investigation.

The letter alleged that between July and October 2018, workers were exposed to carbon tetrachloride, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

It also pointed to a “series” of heat-stress incidents.

In an email, DOE Deputy Press Secretary Jess Szymanski said the Department would not comment further on the ongoing investigation.

But in monthly reports on WIPP operations filed by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, numerous incidents were reported that aligned with the investigation – in some cases resulting in illness or injury to NWP employees.

In a report from the Board dated Oct. 5, 2018, a worker reportedly fell ill during ground control work in Panel 7 of the underground.

Potential causes of the illness were listed as heat stress, and underground air quality.

The report also described a second incident where a worker fell ill near Panel 7, and indications that the worker was exposed to “high-levels” of nitrous oxides.

“WIPP is evaluating both cases. Low airflow conditions remain a significant underground worker safety challenge,” read the report. “NWP is evaluating options to increase the underground air flow before the SS CVS is completed and operating.”

Then, in a report dated Nov. 2, 2018, the Board reported that NWP workers in the underground were exposed to unsafe levels of sulfur dioxide.

Two more cases were reported where workers on the surface were allegedly exposed to unsafe levels of carbon tetrachloride while unpacking waste, read the report.

To address the problems, read the report, CBFO discussed restarting several fans to increase airflow in the underground.

“Until WIPP controls the loose contamination in the underground, it is not clear that operating unfiltered underground ventilation is consistent with the requirements in DOE Order 420.1C, Facility Safety,” read the report.

During the last two weeks of October, WIPP workers did not perform any waste handing or emplacement “as a result of industrial health concerns in the underground and in the Contact Handled Bay.”

Shipments to WIPP were also paused, read the report, until emplacements restarted.

MORE: Opponents fight back against WIPP permit change on waste volume tracking, appeal filed

A report filed on Dec. 7, 2018 said CBFO and the Board discussed corrective actions to be take regarding drums of waste that were “externally contaminated” and putting workers at risk.

That same report described a rockfall on Nov. 14, 2018 in Room 6 of Panel 7 in the underground, where workers were evacuated, and no radiological releases were identified.

The room did contain multiple large pieces of diesel equipment containing fuel, that were abandoned after the rock fall.

“Workers operating diesel equipment or near the equipment are now required to wear electronic air samplers as a corrective action intended to address industrial hygiene issues,” read the report.

MORE: WIPP: Volume tracking change approved by Environment Department

Did they know about the risk?

WIPP officials were aware of the problem months before workers fell ill.

In a report dated July 6, 2018, the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO) reportedly demanded NWP address air flow problems and associated dangers for workers in the underground.

“CBFO sent a letter directing NWP to address several problems with the UVS including ventilation flow rates being less than the design values and airflow directions not being fully understood in the underground,” read the report.

“The letter notes that the problems are associated with the air quality issues for underground workers that have been known for some time but have not been adequately addressed after less formal communications were sent to NWP. The ventilation flow direction is also key to reducing the risk of radiological exposure to workers during accident conditions.”

MORE: WIPP: Shipments resume from Chicago-based lab

NWP did work to address airflow problems by beginning construction of a new ventilation system on June 14, 2018, known as the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS), which the report said would adequately solve the air contamination issues when complete.

The SSCVS was expected to be complete by 2022.

Meanwhile, a report filed the following month – dated Aug. 3, 2018, the CBFO found numerous problems with how NWP was reporting airflow data after the previous request.

MORE: WIPP workers evacuated after rock fall

The CBFO, per the report, found that NWP did not control the configuration of the ventilation system while collecting data, causing it to be invalid.

Inconsistencies were also found in how NWP gathered airflow data, read the report, with CBFO noting that the airflow direction was not consistent with specifications in the facility’s Mine Ventilation Plan.

“As a consequence, NWP is implementing corrective actions to collect new sets of data and to develop a new procedure to control the configuration of the ventilation systems,” read the report.

A brief history of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Wochit

MORE: What did WIPP accomplish during a month-long pause?

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

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