Label on chemical waste drum inaccurate, lab learns

After receiving shipment from Los Alamos, Colorado facility discovers potentially volatile acidity levels


Los Alamos National Laboratory failed more than once in recent months to accurately document the pH level of hazardous liquid shipped six hours north to a waste processing and disposal facility outside Denver, according to an email to the state Environment Department that was made public this week.

The latest incident occurred last month when the lab shipped a drum containing a chemical mixture used to remove buildup from pipes in a cooling system.

All waste from Los Alamos is required to be meticulously screened before it leaves the lab complex, with each drum identifying the types and amounts of chemicals packaged inside, the chemicals' pH levels, their potential for combustion or other reaction, their radiological contents, if any, and a slew of other measures.

But when operators in Colorado examined the drum shipped from Los Alamos on May 17, they determined the pH level was significantly lower, or more acidic, than the lab had indicated on the drum's label, meaning the contents might be different than what was identified on the label -- and potentially more volatile.

The incident, cited in an email to the Environment Department that was made public Monday, was the second time in in recent months that the lab had failed to accurately document the pH level of waste sent to Veolia ES Technical Solutions in Henderson, Colo., a Denver suburb, where hazardous waste is disposed of or recycled.

Kevin Roark, a Los Alamos lab spokesman, confirmed Tuesday that the waste's "profile was changed to a lower pH value" after it was evaluated at the disposal facility. But, he said, "The Laboratory believes the lower pH value was immaterial to the disposal process."

Still, 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 systemic.

Denisse Ike, a spokeswoman for Veolia, said she could not answer questions about the specific waste shipment or the frequency of errors in shipments from Los Alamos because the lab maintains a confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement with the company.

On Sept. 20, 2016, waste containing sodium hydroxide and ferric chloride, used to flush etching tanks at Technical Area 22, a key site for explosives testing at Los Alamos, was documented to be a strong basic solution, with a pH of less than 12.5.

But a month after the waste drum was shipped to Colorado, Veolia notified Los Alamos that the drum's pH was actually just 2.22, indicating it was strongly acidic, and that the drum's contents had not been identified as "ignitable, corrosive, and reactive."

The drum was determined to be almost entirely ferric chloride, which can react violently, become flammable and even explode when mixed with certain metals, releasing toxic and corrosive gases. It was missing proper notification of these hazards while it traveled six hours on roadways between Los Alamos and Denver and as it sat at the new facility for more than 30 days.

Los Alamos said the rest of the waste stream had been properly characterized, but this drum was "inadvertently missed" and therefore wrongly characterized, according to correspondence between the lab and the New Mexico Environment Department.

As a result of the incident, the lab told the state agency, it temporarily paused all shipments of hazardous chemical solutions at TA-22 and rescreened all liquid waste at the site, validating the pH of each drum.

The lab also said it had, as of March 6, updated its management documents 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 Environment Department in a letter.

Less than two months later, the lab once again failed to properly document the pH of liquid waste sent off-site.

The lab said it would evaluate "the waste characterization discrepancy," according to the email between lab officials and the state Environment Department.

Communications between the state agency and the lab reveal a pattern of mischaracterizing waste sent to the Veolia facility. On at least three separate occasions in 2014, there were issues with drums of liquid waste. One involved 100 pounds of waste that the lab had failed to identify as flammable and corrosive, a Class 3 hazard, meaning the waste is highly combustible at certain temperatures, usually over 100 degrees or 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

None of the instances at Veolia involved radioactive materials, or human or environmental contamination. But other failures in drum labeling and packaging at Los Alamos have led to serious repercussions.

In February 2014, the lab improperly packaged a drum of transuranic waste -- materials contaminated by radioactive plutonium -- causing the drum to fill with pressure and explode below ground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad. Radiation was released into the underground storage facility and outside environment through vents, causing the waste site to close for nearly three years.

The incident not only led to pileups of radiological waste throughout the country -- including at Los Alamos -- but prompted WIPP to issue new criteria for what it would accept. At least 300 of Los Alamos' transuranic waste drums have had to be reassessed for potential combustibility before they can be shipped to WIPP.

In April, an unlabeled canister of hazardous waste caught fire at the lab's plutonium facility. Workers believed the container was safe to empty as part of a routine cleaning, but the materials ignited. One employee suffered second-degree burns and work halted at the facility for the day.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.c­om.