Monday, February 28, 2011

Honeywell’s Storage Pond Shut-down Plan Is Completely Safe (According To Honeywell)

From the Feburary 2011 issue of Bazooka Magazine

I went to Honeywell’s community meeting on January 12th mainly because I thought it would be a good place to hear some gossip and maybe talk to some people about a possible story on the lockout. The actual reason of the meeting--Honeywell’s plan to close four storage ponds at the plant--didn’t seem like much of a story. The ponds (and all the toxic waste in them) are already there, so turning them into a solid mass and covering them up didn’t seem like too bad a plan. I think that’s the kind of reaction they were hoping for, because their definitions of “community,” “meeting,” and “Honeywell” differed quite a bit from my expectations.

For starters, everyone had to sign in as soon as they walked in the door (though unlike Mayor Paxton, Honeywell didn’t ask for an address). This might be mandated by the same IEPA (Illinois Environmental Protection Agency)/NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) regulations that required Honeywell to hold the meeting in the first place, but (especially with the lockout going on), there was kind of a Big Brother vibe that didn’t really scream “community” to me, especially with six Honeywell security guys hanging around. Unfortunately, it only occurred to me after I’d signed in that I should have said I was Hagbard Celine of the Erisian Liberation Front. The “Honeywell” part also seemed a bit incorrect, since there wasn’t a single Honeywell spokesperson there (unless you count the goon squad)--just four representatives from the companies contracted to do the sludge pool closing.

As far as the “meeting” part goes, that is a technically correct, because they didn’t say “presentation.” They had some big fancy posters and a Power Point presentation running when the doors opened, and everyone sat down and waited for them to start talking. After about 20 minutes, people started to wonder if they were going to say anything at all. One of the USW guys finally confirmed our doubts by announcing (as he stood right in the path of the one TV camera there) “Everybody can go home, this is all they’re going to do.” One of Honeywell’s contractor confirmed that this was the case and tried to defend this set-up, telling him that they’d be happy to answer questions “one-on-one.” Since the obvious implication was that Honeywell didn’t want people’s concerns to really be publicly aired, this didn’t win the company any points.

It wasn’t long before all four reps were surrounded by groups of people, most of them current or locked-out Honeywell employees asking some serious questions about the plan to close down the ponds. After a few minutes of this, the contractors huddled up and decided to actually answer questions from the attendees as a group. While this decision might have just been made to avoid facing an angry mob, the spokespeople at least deserve some credit for realizing that their plan for the meeting just wasn't going to cut it. Once this started, the “cover up the sludge” plan seemed less and less sound to me. I realize that a lot of the people there were USW folks who have an interest in making Honeywell look bad, but the impression I got was that most of the workers there were people who know what goes on inside the plant and have serious reservations about Honeywell’s plan to close the pond. So either a lot of steel workers might have a future in acting if they don’t go back to work, or they’re genuinely concerned about the potential damage this plan can cause, and any points scored for the union are just a bonus.

Here’s a rundown of the potential problems with Honeywell’s plan:

* One of the big issues that kept coming up is the uranium content of the ponds. According to Honeywell, the average is 200-300 parts per million, which is equivalent to normal background levels of radiation. Several of the workers at the meeting, however, told stories of regularly pulling up samples that were 1,000 or more parts per million, and question whether the samples used by Honeywell are representative. Many of the workers were more inclined to believe their own experience rather than Honeywell's reports, especially given some of the questions about the company's credibility that have been raised in recent months regarding accidents at the plant.
* Another reason many questioned why the ponds are being shut down is that one of the most dangerous chemicals in the sludge, Calcium Fluoride, is used in the conversion process--at one point Honeywell management told employees that the ponds contained $1 million worth of raw materials that could be recovered and used. While this doesn’t get rid of all the toxic chemicals, it at least means a chunk of them will be shipped off to a nuclear plant somewhere and become someone else’s problem. The general consensus at the meeting seemed to be that closing down the ponds was the cheaper solution than recovering the useful materials or having the ponds shipped to a toxic waste dump (as they did with another pond several years ago).
* While a “solidify and cover” plan like this has been used in similar applications, the uniqueness of the Honeywell plant (and the fact that the chemicals in the ponds are known to erode concrete in the plant, and even the boats used on the ponds) makes some people wonder if it will work with this particular cocktail of chemicals. Honeywell plans to monitor the local water supply once the project is complete, but has no contingency plans for what to do if the water (and most likely the Ohio River shortly thereafter) turns up contaminated. Since Honeywell workers have not been allowed to drink the water in the plant for 2 years as it is, this lack of a backup plan doesn’t really inspire confidence. As one attendee of the meeting put it, “The contingency plan for something that’s going to be around for 4.5 billion years should explore all possibilities.”
* The last major problem concerns the liner that’s currently under the ponds. Its condition is unknown, but given that there have been leaks in the past, most of the workers aren’t confident that it will survive the process of mixing the solidifying agent into the ponds. The Honeywell contractors repeatedly pointed out that the liner didn’t even count as far as the EPA was concerned. The problem, of course, is that the EPA discounting of the liner only matters once the sludge is solidified. While it’s still a liquid, the liner is all that keeps the stuff from leaking out. The workers who asked about the liner were worried about what would happen if the liner breaks when the weight of the solidifying agent is added in but before everything settles into a solid mass. The spokespeople consistently failed to address this concern, going back to the EPA’s refusal to recognize the liner once the process was completed. This might have been an honest misunderstanding, but I have my doubts.

So, if you’re worried about this, what can you do? Unfortunately, not a lot. The 60-day public comment period ended on January 31. Even if you would have commented, your comments would not have necessarily influence the IEPA or NRC’s decision. In fact, from what I can gather, public comments are only entered into the official record if there’s a public hearing, and that only happens if there is “significant public comment.” Even comments from a hearing don’t necessarily affect the final decision (though they can result in stiffer penalties if something goes wrong later on)--it’s all up to the regulators, and that might be the most troubling aspect of the whole process. Of the four Honeywell contractors at the meeting, one was former IEPA regulator and I got the strong impression that another used to work for the NRC. If the revolving door between regulators and the people they’re regulating doesn’t seem like a problem, you might want to check out some news stories from the Gulf of Mexico and Wall Street from the last couple of years.
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