New Mexico considers more fines over nuke leak

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's top environment officials and the U.S. Energy Department are wrangling over more than $54 million in fines levied in the wake of a radiological leak at the federal government's underground nuclear waste repository.

Now, state officials are threatening even more fines if the Energy Department doesn't accept responsibility for numerous violations outlined in compliance orders issued by the state last year. The New Mexico Environment Department is working on a new compliance order that could include fines of more than $100 million.

Because negotiations with the federal government are ongoing, officials said the total penalties that could be assessed remains unclear.

Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn and other community leaders from New Mexico were in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to discuss cleanup efforts in the wake of last year's mishap at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico. The facility has been closed since February 2014 when a container of waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory ruptured, contaminating 22 workers and parts of the underground waste dump.

Flynn's office levied more than $54 million in fines against the Energy Department and its contractors in December for violations related to the container leak. The Energy Department has described the penalties as "capricious," saying they should be either reduced or forgiven.

Flynn has refused to back down, saying repeatedly that the federal agency needs to be held accountable.

"We've indicated all along that if DOE is willing to take accountability for the events that caused the release and work with the state then we'd be willing to release them from any further liability at Los Alamos and WIPP," Flynn told The Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor on Monday. "If DOE is not willing to take accountability for what's occurred, then they are going to face significant additional penalties."

The Energy Department on Tuesday did not directly address the possibility of new fines, but it said the safe cleanup of its sites remains a top priority.

"We are committed to addressing the underlying causes that led to the compliance orders and to developing a positive path forward for the re-opening of WIPP and resuming transuranic waste operations at LANL," the agency said in a statement.

The community leaders who traveled to Washington this week said they want to ensure that fines against the lab for its role in the leak are paid by the Energy Department and not taken out of the lab's cleanup budget.

Their visit comes as investigators review the last bit of evidence from the room where the breached container was stored. Last week, crews used a specially designed camera boom to obtain high-resolution images of the area around the container.

The footage is being reviewed, and investigators are expected to release a final report on the incident in the coming weeks. Officials suspect the breach stemmed from a chemical reaction in highly acidic waste that was packed with organic cat litter to absorb moisture.

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