Energy Dept. Fined for Failing to Clean Groundwater at Livermore Lab

SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 7, 2009 (ENS) – Groundwater on and around the site of the U.S. Energy Department’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is contaminated with volatile organic compounds and chromium from activities at the nuclear weapons research site, yet the DOE has halted cleanup, putting the drinking water supply of local communities at risk.

The shutdown began early in 2008 when Congress cut funding to the DOE, and although full funding was restored last July, the cleanup has not resumed.

There are 50,000 people living within a two-mile radius of the lab, and groundwater in downtown Livermore, about two miles west of the site, is used as a municipal drinking water source.

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the Energy Department to immediately resume cleanup activities at the lab or face escalating financial penalties.

The EPA says the Energy Department has failed to operate numerous groundwater and soil vapor treatment facilities and associated wells – an integral part of cleanup activities at the site.

“The shutdown of the treatment systems puts the community and the environment at risk,” said Michael Montgomery, assistant director for the EPA’s Superfund Division in the Pacific Southwest region.

“The taxpayers have already paid for the construction of the treatment systems – it’s DOE’s responsibility to operate them,” Montgomery said.

The laboratory, about 45 miles east of San Francisco, is operated by a five member team including Bechtel National, University of California, Babcock and Wilcox, the Washington Division of URS Corporation, and Battelle for the Department of Energy.

As part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nuclear stockpile research, an explosive is loaded for testing at the Livermore lab’s High Explosives Application Facility. (Photo courtesy LLNL)

Research and support activities at the lab handle, generate, or manage hazardous materials that include radioactive wastes. The lab is a Superfund site, listed as one of the most contaminated sites in the country.

The EPA says the recent failure of a large treatment unit on the perimeter of the site has resulted in a loss of contaminated groundwater plume control off-site, where it may spread beneath adjacent local neighborhoods.

Fuel hydrocarbons including benzene and ethylene dibromide, the heavy metal lead, and radioactive tritium appear in wells on the lab site.

Soil excavated from the site was contaminated with solvents, radioactive wastes, heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls, and fuel hydrocarbons. Soils remaining on-site contain volatile organic compounds, tritium, PCBs, fuel hydrocarbons, and inorganic substances.

The EPA warned in a statement today that people may face a health threat if they ingest or come in direct contact with contaminated water or soil.

The EPA, the Energy Department and California state agencies first signed an agreement to clean up the lab in 1988.

In 2007, the EPA certified that the Energy Department had built the necessary groundwater and soil vapor treatment systems needed to clean up the site. The intention was for DOE to operate the systems until the cleanup standards selected by both federal agencies were met – a time period estimated in decades.

In early 2008, the Energy Department informed the EPA that Congress had reduced funding for the cleanup and that DOE would need to start shutting down the treatment systems.

The EPA advised the Energy Department to seek reprogramming of funds from Congress. By the time this was accomplished, 28 treatment systems had been shut down and 60 percent of the technical support staff had been laid off.

Despite receiving full funding in July 2008, the Energy Department has still not restored operation of most of the systems.

While pump-and-treat systems have been shut down, site contamination has spread both laterally and vertically, resulting in a larger volume of contaminated groundwater and increasing timeframes for completing the overall cleanup.

The EPA is seeking $105,000 in penalties for the period from July to September 2008 for the Energy Department’s failure to resume cleanup and also is continuing to assess penalties of $10,000 per week from October 1 until the DOE resumes the cleanup.

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