Increasing Levels of Carbon Tetrachloride at WIPP

January 22, 2010

Over the past six months, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) has been reporting to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) continuing and increasing levels of carbon tetrachloride being released into the air from the underground facility. If the levels continue to rise by similar amounts over the next two to three months, WIPP will be required to stop emplacing waste and seal off the disposal room in order to reduce the levels. Such a result would lessen the amount of space available at the nation's only disposal site for plutonium-contaminated waste generated by nuclear weapons manufacturing. The disposal rooms are located 2,150 feet below the surface in salt formations east of Carlsbad, New Mexico.

The source of the carbon tetrachloride, or carbon tet, is suspected to be waste drums generated at the Rocky Flats Plant from the manufacturing of nuclear weapons from 1953 to 1989. The carbon tet was used as a solvent. Because of fires that resulted in waste storage limits at Rocky Flats, carbon tet contaminated waste and sludges were shipped to the Idaho National Laboratory for storage more than 20 years ago.

Carbon tet is a suspected human carcinogen and exposure is harmful to the kidneys, liver, and the central nervous system. Because of the harmful effects that persist for decades, the federal government banned it from many uses more than two decades ago.

The reporting is required under the state hazardous waste permit, which is designed to protect public health and the environment. The permit intentionally set the "level of concern" for reporting at 165 parts per billion, significantly lower than what would be expected to cause harm to public health. Thus, with knowledge of the problem, remedial actions can be taken to prevent harmful exposures.

The Department of Energy (DOE), which owns WIPP, did not expect that it would ever reach the level of concern and has not yet come up with a method to prevent the levels from rising. There are ten times or more the number of drums awaiting shipment compared with those that already have been shipped.

Don Hancock, with Southwest Research and Information Center, has been monitoring the reports. On December 23rd, he wrote DOE asking for a suspension of the carbon tet shipments until the matter is resolved. He also urged DOE to fully inform the WIPP underground workers of the rising levels.

DOE responded that it had informed the workforce, that shipments would continue, and it would consider "reducing the frequency and quantity of carbon tetrachloride bearing waste."

Hancock said, "It is incomprehensible that DOE has not suspended the shipments of suspect waste streams and is not yet developing ways to reduce the amounts of carbon tet in wastes before they are shipped, in addition to taking action to address the existing levels at WIPP."

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