Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad in an area known as Los Medanos (The Dunes) is growing. The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has permitted the use of the underground disposal Panel 8 with 16-foot high ceilings.  Nineteen non-governmental and business organizations representing tens of thousands of New Mexicans expressed their concern about the permit for WIPP’s expansion in a group letter to NMED. DOE and its Office of Environmental Management (EM) owns and operates WIPP but are permitted and regulated by NMED.

The group’s letter to NMED stated “Not only did the Permittees knowingly not comply with the Permit room height requirement, and they did not provide the required notification to NMED, but they have also made a third violation of the Permit by submitting incorrect information to NMED, regarding the existing VOC Room Based Limits that are calculated for 13-foot high ceilings. Incorrect information is a violation of Permit Section 1.6 and the Certification that the modification requests are true, accurate, and complete.”

The first seven Disposal Panels in WIPP’s underground mine for plutonium-contaminated waste are three feet shorter than the 8th Panel NMED just permitted. The group’s letter told NMED that “such violations of the WIPP Permit should be cited and fines and penalties should be the result, not approval of Permit changes that seek to erase those violations.” They requested NMED deny the permit modification request or elevate it to a class 3 modification, which would include a public hearing. NMED “determined, based on the public comments received, that ‘significant public concern’ over this [permit modification request] is not supported, which would warrant its elevation to a Class 3.” 

The initial mining of Panel 8 began in 2013, however, a 2014 underground fire and radiation release from nuclear waste drums shut down WIPP and halted the work on it for nearly three years at a cost of $3 billion dollars.

The Permittees, DOE and its contractor, the Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC, claimed the higher ceilings were necessary to reduce roof falls that could endanger workers.  The increase of Panel 8’s ceiling height required re-calculation of the limits for emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOC) from the waste drums.   However, the Permittees stated they “had not evaluated the need for VOC calculation changes nor run the model for the VOC calculations with the new room height.” 

Joni Arends, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety co-founder, responded, “How can the Permittees claim in 2021, four years after the resumption of mining and increasing the ceiling height by three feet, that they didn’t recognize the need to recalculate the VOC emissions?  The VOC emission limits are what protect workers from the hazards of breathing VOCs.”

Since 2013 the Permittees have been providing the Environment Department with verbal mining progress updates. “It is unconscionable that the Environment Department did not require written progress reports,” Arends stated.

James Kenney, New Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment, expressed concerns about operations at WIPP in a December 2021 letter to the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) calling for the federal office to increase its oversight of nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad. 

The House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce (Committee) also requested in December 2022 that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examine management challenges and other issues at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) and have requested GAO examine four areas specific to EM’s mission, including 1) DOE Program Management, 2) Minimum safety requirements, 3) Soil and groundwater contamination and 4) Coordination with stakeholders.