SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups wondered aloud Tuesday if the state Department of Environmental Quality should be disbanded and its chief radiation control officer fired in the wake of a blistering audit that found little oversight over the radioactive waste buried in Tooele County.
"I almost think that the Department of Environmental Quality should be disbanded and start over from scratch one," said Waddoups, a Republican from Taylorsville. "This is a terrible response" to the legislative audit released Tuesday.
Waddoups said the agency's failure to carry out its regulatory duties is a bungle that eclipses even problems identified in previous audits of the state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control because of the public safety issues involved.
In the aftermath of audits uncovering mismanagement in the alcohol agency, the department was overhauled in a legislative and gubernatorial fix that went into effect this year.
During a Tuesday meeting of the Legislative Audit Subcommittee in which the report's findings were detailed, Waddoups sharply rebuked Department of Environmental Quality Director Amanda Smith, as well as director of the Division of Radiation Control, Rusty Lundberg.
"(Your response) appears to be justifying errors and mistakes that were made," he said.
Performed by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General, the report states that regulators rely too heavily on EnergySolutions to police itself over the kind of radioactive waste buried at its western desert site in Clive, Tooele County, resulting in little assurance that prohibitions on "hotter" waste or foreign waste aren't being violated.
"As the oversight arm for radioactive waste disposal in Utah, the Division of Radiation Control is not exercising sufficient controls to detect radioactive waste banned by Utah statute," the legislative audit stated.
Waddoups said that EnergySolutions is a "good corporate citizen," and it is the division that has fallen down on its job, adding that the division has a "responsibility to do better and do more."
"I think the problem here is the Division of Radiation Control," he said. "You have to tell me, Ms. Smith, why Mr. Lundberg shouldn't be terminated."
The performance audit recommends state regulators go beyond the so-called traditional honor system of the industry self-reporting waste disposal shipments because of Utah's unique ban and its relationship with the private company.
State regulators, however, fired back that while they are willing to institute additional layers of oversight, they don't believe the costs of such a program would make the disposal site any safer than it already is or go beyond the steps it has taken to assure protection of public health.
"The audit recommendations are heavily based on policy implementation, whereas the existing regulatory framework is founded on protecting public health and safety and is fully consistent with other environmental regulatory programs," wrote Lundberg, division director.
But the audit noted that while the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission told auditors the division has the authority to sample incoming waste, regulators have "chosen to not exercise this authority because of the regulatory model they follow."
Instead, the audit stressed, the division "continues to compare itself against other states, federal rules and environmental programs that do not address the unique restrictions that are important to the Utah site."
The audit said the lack of regulatory oversight has fostered an environment that allowed documented instances of waste being accepted by EnergySolutions in violation of state law.
"While these documented cases are concerning, we are more concerned the Division of Radiation Control's lack of independent oversight could allow many more shipments of greater than Class A waste to be disposed of at the site and never detected," the audit stated.
Among the "internal control weaknesses" identified in government oversight are:
• EnergySolutions polices its own waste disposal operations.
• The division has no independent controls over classification of containerized waste.
• The division's permit program lacks independent review of waste generators, giving rise to questions about the origin and nature of the waste, including if it comes from foreign countries.
"We questioned how the Division of Radiation Control and EnergySolutions can really know what it is in the containers if it is not independently verified," the audit noted. "We were told that they can only trust that the generators and brokers are honest and accurate with their waste classifications reported on the shipping manifest."
Smith said regulators are willing to institute additional safeguards for a more robust system, but it comes down to cost and policy considerations.
"All of our divisions and all of our programs are based on self-regulation. That is the way it is done across the board," she said. "The audit is really focused on because of those differences in our state and does it justify greater regulatory practices than what is found in our other programs."
Such a rigorous system of assuring waste classification prior to disposal would mean that "EnergySolutions should be regulated differently, differently than any other entity in the country that does business," she said.
Smith said such a system could ultimately give greater assurance on adherence to state and policy restrictions, but she questioned how much it would enhance the division's ultimate goal of protection of public health.
"Because we have a policy of no greater than Class A waste, the audit says we should be tracking that backward and having more independent oversight," Smith said, "but that is not based on protecting public health, but on making sure the policy is followed."13 comments on this story
She added, too, that the federal regulatory system of waste classification is based on a robust framework that Utah participates in, and checking the waste on site, prior to disposal, is more complicated than "just popping the lid."
"The problem is that is not how it is done," Smith said. "You're exposing workers to an unnecessary amount of radiation."
The audit gave critics of the radioactive waste industry and EnergySolutions ample ammunition to fire off another complaint that the industry gets away with too much in the state.
"There is no accountability for EnergySolutions," said HEAL Utah Executive Director Christopher Thomas. "The system is broken, and it's the Utah public who is paying the price."