VERNON—Not surprisingly, most scrutiny of the Vermont Yankee site revolves around radiological concerns.
But, as indicated by a recent, months-long process of violation notices and responses, state officials also are deeply interested in what plant owner Entergy is doing with its non-radiological waste — so much so that the state has threatened a civil complaint and associated, unspecified penalties in connection with an inspection earlier this year.
Some of the issues might seem surprisingly trivial: a half-full can of Sherwin-Williams primer, for instance, or an extended debate over the wording on signs at the Vernon plant.
Others are more substantive, including Entergy’s admission that a contractor hadn’t been properly disposing of a chemical used as antifreeze.
In its latest statements on the matter, the company is asking state officials to levy no penalty based on its handling of non-radiological hazardous wastes, contending that it has complied with state regulations and has “reasonably explained” any alleged violations.
“Finally, and importantly to Vermont Yankee, none has resulted in any risk to the environment or human health,” an attorney representing Entergy wrote in a Sept. 9 letter to the state.
The debate stems from an inspection conducted May 18 at the plant, which ceased producing power in late December. Representatives of the state Agency of Natural Resources Waste Management and Prevention Division visited to determine Entergy’s compliance with Vermont’s hazardous-waste management regulations.
State officials are careful to note that “the inspection was not intended to include and did not include any examination of radiological contamination or radiological activities at the facility.”
But they did find several alleged violations. At the top of the state’s list was a determination that, in two drums of waste identified as “‘lab packs’ containing waste ethylene glycol, a material regulated in Vermont as hazardous waste .... ENVY failed to make a determination that the waste ethylene glycol was hazardous waste.”
A plant spokesman said ethylene glycol functions as an antifreeze at Vermont Yankee. And Entergy says it had instructed Clean Harbors — a Massachusetts-based company hired to transport and dispose of hazardous waste from the plant site — to recycle the chemical. Recycling the ethylene glycol apparently would allow for exemption from the state’s hazardous-waste classification.
But Entergy acknowledges that, “without first advising Vermont Yankee, Clean Harbors departed from Vermont Yankee’s direction by disposing of the ethylene glycol via incineration.”
“Clean Harbors has since acknowledged that its mistaken disposition of ethylene glycol was inconsistent with Vermont Yankee’s express direction and Clean Harbor’s representations regarding the handling of that material to Vermont Yankee,” Entergy attorney Elise Zoli wrote in her Sept. 9 letter to the state. “We believe that Clean Harbors is now sensitized to this sort of error.”
A companion communication to the state penned by Vermont Yankee Site Vice President Chris Wamser echoed the attorney’s narrative of events, noting that “Vermont Yankee continues to investigate the underlying facts and circumstances, and expects to follow up with ANR in the near future as additional information becomes available.”
What all of that adds up to isn’t clear: The incineration didn’t occur on VY property, Entergy spokesman Martin Cohn said, and he confirmed that the company still is contracting with Clean Harbors.
Phil Retallick, Clean Harbors’ senior vice president for compliance and regulatory affairs, acknowledged the company’s mistake in an interview with The Commons. At issue, he said, was 47 gallons of ethylene glycol collected from Yankee.
“From this point moving forward, we’ve instituted enough corrective measures that it shouldn’t happen again,” Retallick said.
He also noted that it is not uncommon to incinerate small quantities of ethylene glycol, and such a disposition shouldn’t be technically construed as a “mishandling” of the waste.
In the end, the relevant issue for Entergy is whether the state will see fit to penalize the company for the ethylene glycol labeling snafu. In her letter to the state, Zoli wrote that “we respectfully submit that an alleged violation against Vermont Yankee is not appropriate under the circumstances.”
Frequency of hazardous-waste inspections was another concern for state inspectors, who found that, for short-term storage areas, “inspections were not being conducted on a daily basis and, according to the [Vermont Yankee] representative, no inspections were being conducted at the ‘absorbent storage shed.’”
Entergy countered that no inspections were required at that structure, and the company says it is in “material compliance” with general inspection mandates.
Yankee staffers over the past 12 months have performed 174 inspections of short-term waste-storage areas, “more than three times as many as the minimum one inspection per week that the regulation authorizes some generators to perform,” Zoli’s letter says.
She adds that “the instances in which no inspection was logged are generally few, eliminating any realistic possibility that a spill or leak would have gone undetected.” And given that the plant site is secure, the attorney wrote, there is no risk of unauthorized removal of hazardous material.
Other disputes from the May 18 inspection:
• The state claimed that, though Entergy was maintaining an electronic inventory of all non-radiological materials at the plant, the inventory didn’t say which of those materials was hazardous.
Entergy maintains that there were no violations of state law, but “nonetheless, Vermont Yankee voluntarily revised its inventory lists after the site inspection, incorporating suggestions from ANR staff.”
• A state inspector claimed to observe “numerous” containers holding hazardous waste that were not marked as such. Entergy’s attorney says this part of the state’s complaint is not clear and has asked for an explanation of the labeling rules.
• A significant amount of time has been spent on a half-full can of primer found on a shelf marked for non-hazardous waste. The state contends that, because the primer contains 45 percent ethanol, it should have been considered hazardous.
Entergy counters that, at the time of the May inspection, staff members still were evaluating materials stored in that area.
Citing sections of Vermont’s hazardous-waste regulations, Entergy’s attorney wrote that “designated Vermont Yankee staff had not yet determined whether [the primer] had, in fact, ‘served [the] original intended use’ that Vermont Yankee had for it, or whether it might be put to further use in connection with a different project. Consequently, the can of primer is not properly classified as a ‘waste,’ let alone a ‘hazardous waste.’”
For anyone still in suspense about the primer, Vermont Yankee’s letter goes on to acknowledge that staff members later determined that they had no further use for the primer, and it was shipped away in June via Clean Harbors.
• There’s also a question about missing signs at Yankee’s hazardous-waste storage areas.
Entergy claims the company had, in fact, used proper warnings, and it was “impossible to enter the storage area without first encountering the sign up close.” However, the company says it prepared new signs after the state inspection and sent along pictures to prove it.
In summing up Entergy’s response to the May inspection, Wamser wrote that he welcomes the opportunity for Vermont Yankee staff to again meet with ANR to discuss its violation notice “and our planned decommissioning efforts.”
“We believe communication builds strong relationships and fosters trust, the building blocks for an effective partnership that meets ANR’s and Entergy’s shared commitment to environmental stewardship, as well as my personal goal for the successful decommissioning of the site,” Wamser wrote.