The cleanup mission at the Department of Energy’s Idaho Site officially began in 1989 when the Idaho National Laboratory was added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List of Superfund Sites due to suspected and confirmed historical contaminant releases to the environment.
Of principle concern was the Site’s impact on the underlying Snake River Plain Aquifer, a sole-source aquifer and primary drinking and agricultural water source for more than 300,000 Idahoans. The past use of unlined wastewater disposal ponds, industrial injection wells, accidental spills and waste discharges created contaminant plumes underneath the 890-square-mile Site.
Prior to 1989, there were attempts on the part of the DOE and state of Idaho to identify literally hundreds of past contaminant release sites and to secure federal funding to catalog the sites, conduct environmental investigations, and if necessary, clean up the areas. Such tasks became a requirement once the EPA listed the INL as a Superfund site. The EPA, state of Idaho, and DOE signed the Federal Facility Agreement (FFA/CO) and Consent Order and associated Action Plan on December 9, 1991. This legally binding cleanup agreement outlined the process and schedule for investigating suspected and confirmed contaminant release sites and required the DOE to annually request the necessary funding to carry out the cleanup mission.
As a Superfund site, the DOE and its contractor conduct “risk-based cleanup.” In the simplest terms, if a confirmed contaminant release site poses an unacceptable risk to either people or the environment, it requires cleanup or the establishment of controls to keep people, plants, or animals from coming into contact with the waste. If a site poses little to no risk, either limited or no action is taken. Such an approach allows DOE to direct cleanup funds to areas of the Site that do indeed pose an unacceptable risk to people or the environment.
Since 1991, the EPA, state of Idaho, and DOE, have signed 25 records of decision on individual contaminant release sites and entire facilities at the Site. More than $9 billion has been spent on environmental cleanup thus far. Cleanup actions continue at Test Area North, the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center, and the Radioactive Waste Management Complex. Reviews of previously completed cleanup areas and entire facilities are conducted every five years. The outcome of those reviews is available for public reading on the DOE’s Administrative Record website.
In addition to the FFA/CO, the DOE and state of Idaho have entered into legally binding agreements that dictate the cleanup, treatment, relocation, or removal of other materials and waste types not specifically called out in the landmark 1991 cleanup agreement. Most notable is the 1995 Idaho Settlement Agreement, sometimes called the Batt Agreement. This agreement contains enforceable milestones for the removal of transuranic (or weapons production) waste, spent nuclear fuel, high-level granulated waste (called calcine), and radioactive liquid waste currently stored in an underground tank farm. The DOE and its contractors have been making steady progress meeting milestones in the Idaho Settlement Agreement since its inception.
Since the early 2000s, the DOE has been implementing an “accelerated cleanup” approach at the Idaho Site. Contractors are incentivized to complete FFA/CO, Idaho Settlement Agreement, and other cleanup agreement milestones ahead of schedule. Such an approach has been highly successful and has saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
In 2016, Fluor Idaho, LLC was selected by the DOE to manage cleanup operations at the Idaho Site under a five-year, $1.4 billion contract. Fluor Idaho, a contractor formed by Fluor Corporation, North Wind, CH2M, Waste Control Specialists, and Portage, brought a management team with extensive environmental management experience to join the existing workforce to continue the accelerated cleanup mission.
Factoring in all agreements, the DOE and its contractors have completed 98.5 percent of all cleanup milestones on or ahead of schedule at the Idaho Site. With billions of dollars in cleanup and waste management investments, the Snake River Plain Aquifer and public are considerably safer today. While challenges remain with meeting existing and future milestones, DOE and Fluor Idaho will explore all options possible to keep its cleanup commitments to the citizens of Idaho.