New Mexico lab ships mislabeled waste container to Colorado

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Correspondence between Los Alamos National Laboratory and New Mexico regulators shows the lab has failed more than once to accurately label drums of liquid waste shipped to a disposal center in Colorado.

The problem was outlined in an email to the New Mexico Environment Department that was made public Monday. It marked the second time in recent months that the lab failed to accurately document the pH level of waste sent to Veolia ES Technical Solutions.

Los Alamos spokesman Kevin Roark said the lab believes the lower pH value was immaterial to the disposal process.

The lab has consistently racked up violations for failing to accurately assess and document the contents of hazardous waste drums, and federal and state reports have shown that the problems are widespread.

All waste from the northern New Mexico lab is required to be screened before it leaves the complex, with each drum identifying the types and amounts of chemicals inside as well as details that include the pH levels, a potential for combustion and whether drums contain any radiological contents.

When operators in Colorado examined the drum shipped May 17 from Los Alamos, they determined the pH level was significantly lower, or more acidic, than the lab had indicated on the label. That meant the contents might be different than what was identified on the label — and potentially more volatile.

The disposal center could not answer questions about the shipment or the frequency of errors in shipments from Los Alamos because the lab maintains a confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement with the company.

Last September, waste containing sodium hydroxide and ferric chloride — used to flush etching tanks at one of Los Alamos’ key sites for explosives testing — was documented as a strong basic solution, with a pH of less than 12.5. Rather, the Colorado facility determined it was strongly acidic and the label did not indicate the contents as ignitable, corrosive or reactive.

The drum was missing proper notification of potential hazards while it traveled on roadways between Los Alamos and Denver and as it sat at the disposal facility for more than 30 days.

In the correspondence, Los Alamos claims the rest of the waste had been properly characterized but this particular drum was inadvertently missed.

The lab told state regulators that as a result, it temporarily suspended shipments and rescreened all liquid waste at Technical Area 22. Management documents also were updated in March to require waste to undergo more thorough pH screenings.

“LANL will hold formally documented training on the revised pH screening standard,” lab officials told the state in a letter.

However, the most recent incident happened less than two months later.

Communication between the state and the lab also reveals issues with drums of liquid waste on at least three separate occasions in 2014. One involved 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of waste that the lab failed to identify as flammable and corrosive.

None of the instances at Veolia involved radioactive materials.

Los Alamos was to blame for the inappropriate packaging of a container of waste that ruptured after being sent to the federal government’s underground nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico.

That 2014 radiation release forced the nearly three-year closure of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and stalled the nation’s multibillion-dollar cleanup program for Cold War-era waste from decades of research and bomb-making.

Investigators determined the incident could have been avoided had existing policies and procedures been followed.

Management was criticized and the federal government reached a costly settlement with the state of New Mexico.

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