The Utah Department of Environmental Quality is calling it a serendipitous discovery with profound implications.
For Envirocare, the low-level radioactive waste dump plagued in recent years with accusations of legal improprieties, it is yet another disaster - one that could lead to a shutdown of all or portions of the Tooele County facility.On Monday, the DEQ announced it had suspended Envirocare's license renewal application, as well as all applications for permit modifications, in the wake of the discovery that an Envirocare engineer who had signed off on many technical specifications of the facility is not a licensed engineer.
"Our main concern is protection of the public and the environment," said DEQ executive director Dianne R. Nielson in announcing the suspension of Envi-ro-care's license renewal.
"DEQ relies upon certain plans to ensure facilities are built and operated in accordance with environmental laws. We won't know if there are problems or if changes are needed here until the engineer review is completed," she added.
Envirocare has promised that all documents bearing the signature of Alan A. Bargerstock will be reviewed by licensed engineers and submitted to the state by July 27. DEQ will then review the documents.
If any problems become apparent in the re-examination, those affected portions of the facility could be shut down, Nielson said. If DEQ is comfortable the current design of the facilities meets Utah law, the agency will proceed with Envirocare's license renewal.
Envirocare president Charles Judd said that since Tuesday a team of professional engineers from outside the company has been reviewing all documents with Bargerstock's signature, and no problems have been identified.
"There is absolutely no reason for anyone to be concerned about problems with public health or safety," Judd said.
Bargerstock, who has been fired by Envirocare, worked as an engineer for Envirocare for the past 18 months. He was one of about 10 engineers working at Envirocare and had responsibilities for producing the technical drawings of facilities and cells used to store the waste.
"He was one of many engineers involved in what we do," Judd said, adding that Bargerstock had little involvement in the written material that went into the design work. "Designing how the facility was to be operated was done by other folks. It is not like he was doing everything. He was doing the drawings."
The investigation into Bargerstock began last week quite by accident. DEQ employees were testing a new Internet program by the Division of Professional and Occupational Licensing that lists all individuals with professional licenses. Bargerstock's name was chosen at random to test the program.
When DEQ employees could not find Bargerstock's name anywhere in the list of licensed engineers, a formal investigation was initiated by DOPL.
"This is perhaps the most serious case of an unlicensed engineer working in Utah we have seen in years," said Doug Borba, executive director of the Department of Commerce, which oversees DOPL. "The length of time he was able to continue working, coupled with the fact that the company he was working for deals with radioactive and hazardous waste materials, makes this case extremely troubling."
Under current law, Envirocare will continue to operate under its existing permit pending the review of documents with Bargerstock's signature. There is no expiration date of the current permit as long as the license renewal process has been initiated.
Depending on the results of the review, environmental regulators say they are considering a number of fines against Envirocare. The Division of Radiation Control is looking at fines of $5,000 per violation, and the Division of Water Quality is looking at civil penalties of $10,000 per violation. The Division of Solid and Hazardous Waste is considering fines of $10,000 per day.
Bargerstock could face numerous felony charges.
When Bargerstock was hired, he claimed to be a licensed engineer and he produced a professional engineer's stamp and license number, something the company says "clearly indicates deception to obtain employment."
"It is very frustrating and disheartening to have an employee go to this level of deception and create problems for Envirocare," Judd said. "Nevertheless, we will move forward and commit every resource necessary to reverify the engineering work of this individual."
Ironically, there was nothing in Bargerstock's work that raised red flags at DEQ. Nielson said regulators routinely check the facts and figures in the documents submitted by companies. "In cases where a person is not qualified, we would expect to see gross errors in the numbers," she said.
But regulators noticed no such problems with Bargerstock's work.
The latest crisis at Envirocare adds to a string of legal problems for the company, which is the only facility licensed to accept that type of low-level radioactive waste. The company is facing numerous court challenges from would-be competitors who say it has manipulated the regulatory process to maintain its monopoly and obtain sweetheart deals with the Department of Energy.
The company is also involved in an ongoing criminal investigation by the Justice Department regarding payments to a former state regulator. The company maintains the payments were extorted, while other companies maintain it was bribery to maintain the Envirocare monopoly.