Texas Radiation- Waste and Bankruptcy Note: Much of this section discusses the company GNI and their old sites in the Houston area. As of 2005, 17 workers who were involved with GNI have filed a lawsuit charging that they are exhibiting signs of overexposure to radiation from working at the sites. Two of the main news items regarding this have been pasted at the bottom, below the discussion of how the company filed for bankruptcy and left a huge mess for taxpayers to cover.

Radioactive Waste and Corporate Responsibility
In our overview of uranium sites in Texas, there were some fairly startling examples of irresponsible behaviour on the part of corporations, aside from the fact that many of those sites were simply abandoned to be cleaned up by state or federal bodies. One of the big concerns over a Texas waste dump have been about title and bankruptcy. In Texas, the law states that a private company which owns a dump can make their billions in profits and then file bankruptcy, transfering the ownership of the waste to the State of Texas. In previous sessions, the bill actually directly assigned ownership to the State upon waste receipt on-site. This functions as a back door for licensees to escape liability through, and one might have noticed that all of the companies involved in the waste industry have obtained limited liability status as well. The bottom line is that if a waste broker is allowed to build a dump, they can make their profits by accepting waste and then later file for bankruptcy and walk away leaving the liability to the taxpayers.

Under the law, to qualify for licensing a company needs to demonstrate that they have the financial assurance to cover decommissioning costs, which allows for some cleanup money in the event that the company goes under. Below we look over the example of Gulf Nuclear, which had two processing/ production facilities, and not a waste dump. The Houston Chronicle said that the TDH-BRC insisted that the decommissioning money which would have been earmarked for cleanup at GNI sites would never have been enough to cover the entire cost. Obviously, this is very serious, and tells us that the law is requiring insufficient financial assurance for these sites.

Insufficient decommissioning funds are also a huge issue with nuclear power plants. During the early 1990's, this became the topic of much discussion when it was found that Texas nuclear plant operators had hardly contributed a significant funds to the task. The Price Anderson Act was enacted by the US Congress to provide financial assurance to nuclear power stations. The allocated funds, however, are also insufficient to meet the estimated coverage of damages in event of an accident.

Gulf Nuclear's Houston Sites at Webster and Tavenor
Gulf Nuclear of Louisiana Inc. (GNI) avoided cleanup responsibility for two sites it operated in the Houston area. In 1992, GNI had filied a Chapter 11 bankruptcy statement and walked away from its properties. By 2002, it also was granted a request for chapter 7 bankruptcy. Last year, since Gulf Nuclear still had not done anything to clean the heavily contaminated Webster site, the EPA was called to the task, using emergency Superfund money.

A team comprising workers from the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a private environmental cleanup company established temporary offices on site, and assigned 24-hour security. After assessing the sites, the EPA estimated an $8.5 million tab for what the Houston Chronicle called a "virtually unprecedented and dangerous nuclear mess." Later, this figure jumped to $9.6 million. Some material from the Webster building was so radioactive it could not be legally be disposed of at any existing facility in the United States. This material is now stored at WCS, and slated for disposal at Yucca Mountain. The rest of the sites waste, including the rubblized buildings, has been sent to the LLW disposal sites in Clive, Utah and Barnwell, South Carolina. Cleanup at the Webster location was declared completed on December 13, 2002.

Michael Dunn with the Bureau of Radiation Control said there was no indication that any radiation had escaped the building and threatened the surrounding communities. Greg Fife, an EPA veteran who was the on-site coordinator for the cleanup, said that when he and other federal officials first entered the Webster building in January, they expected to find most of the contamination confined to the "hot room," a sealed, lead-lined area where the radioactive materials were kept and handled. They also expected to find the radiation was coming from about 12 sources. Instead, they found more than 360 sources, and contamination so widespread that workers almost certainly were exposed to very high, very dangerous levels of radioactivity. In one area outside the "hot room," Fife said workers would have been exposed to one year's worth of acceptable radiation in 38 minutes. "Anybody that's been in there would have no reluctance to call the operation sloppy and unprofessional," Fife said.

Fife said americium-241 contamination in the Webster building was widespread. Glove boxes coated with radioactive powder, raw materials spilled on the floor, and evidence that workers used plastic coffee cups to mix radioactive chemicals, which were stored in plastic ice trays. Investigators even found a sealed room with fake walls in which was entombed thousands of dollars worth of contaminated equipment. Radioactive rats and roaches also have been discovered at the Webster site.

"Housekeeping was extremely poor," said Fife in a Jan. 27 memo. "Protective containers were left open, radium needles are scattered on the floor, and the ventilation system is highly contaminated. ... Some areas have radiation levels high enough to provide the yearly permissible dose in a very short period of time."

"I've done this for 15 years," Fife said. "I've seen nasty sites where things fell apart because of a lack of money. I've seen cases where the owners of a facility couldn't cope with the problem. But I have never seen such total disregard for the neighbors or the workers."

Gulf Nuclear began operations at the two sites in 1971, initially supplying radioactive tracers for the oil industry. Over time it began making devices using Americium-241, beryllium, cesium-137, irridium-192 and other isotopes that were used for a variety of purposes from medical diagnostic devices, aircraft fuel gauges, to fluid-density gauges.

Virtually all the contamination at both sites occurred between 1971 and 1992- the year that Gulf Nuclear filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, seeking protection from its creditors while it reorganized. The company then filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2000, seeking to liquidate and close. During this time, little was done to clean up the Webster facility. "Basically they just walked off," he said. "They got their money during the oil boom and then they just walked off." Fife said.

Dunn said department inspectors visited the facilities once or twice a year. The reason nothing alerted inspectors to problems that according to Fife were evident, could be that "they weren't told some things," Dunn said. The Gulf Nuclear operation is one of only two of its kind in the state licensed by the health department, Dunn said. "This is a rare one," he said.

Carl Shaw, president and CEO of The GNI Group, the parent company of Gulf Nuclear, did not return a phone call to his home seeking comment. Neither did two attorneys representing him. But in an affidavit filed in support of his company's 2000 bankruptcy petition, he states GNI has five wholly owned subsidiaries, including Gulf Nuclear of Louisiana Inc. On Sept. 12, 2000, a year before any regulatory agencies were involved in the cleanup, Shaw stated under oath, that Gulf Nuclear's properties are "currently undergoing decontamination" and that once that is completed they will be "released for sale by the appropriate regulatory authorities." The EPA's Fife said nothing of any substance had been done to decontaminate the Webster facility before the EPA's involvement in October 2001.

The Houston Chronicle said that Health Department officials had acknowledged that Gulf Nuclear's failure to submit a decommissioning and funding plan may have compromised the state's earlier efforts to get money out of the bankruptcy to cover the cleanup, but they insist that it would never have been enough to cover the entire cost.

In September, state Assistant Attorney General Hal Morris, sent an e-mail to his clients at the Health Department, whom he represented in the bankruptcy case. "Having no funds with which to remediate the GNL radiated assets ... the two facilities will need to be addressed with State Funds. ... It is indeed a sad day for the taxpayers of this state. We tried our best. I'm very sorry."

A spokesman for the state attorney general's office said the state and the EPA will be filing a joint administrative claim to recoup some of the cleanup expenses from GNI. Cleanup at the two sites was declared completed in December. Most of the waste was sent to Barnwell, and Envirocare's site in Utah.

Articles regarding 2005 lawsuit by 17 plaintiffs - Ex- GNI cleanup workers

Radiation poisoning claimed in lawsuit
City man, 17 others say job in Texas violated federal safety law
Steve Orr, Staff writer
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

(March 10, 2005) In the fearful days after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Texas authorities told their counterparts in Washington, D.C., about a building in suburban Houston that could be used as a terrorist's workshop.

The abandoned industrial site was filled with radioactive cesium and americium just the sort of material that someone bent on terror could use to make radiological "dirty bombs."

In 2002, federal authorities began to clean up and raze the building. Within a year's time, the radioactive material was shipped off to secure disposal facilities.

Now, however, a Rochester man and 17 other people are claiming that the problem didn't really end there. In a lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court here, they say they suffered serious radiation contamination while cleaning up the site.

"They did a lot of work there, but they were put in constant danger every day," said Linda R. Shaw, the workers' Rochester attorney. "Some of them have been, we believe, significantly overexposed."

She said the working conditions were so unsafe that many workers left the job because of it.

In legal papers filed March 1, the plaintiffs said the company conducting the cleanup, Shaw Group Inc., failed to provide adequate protection to workers and allowed them to suffer "excessive external and internal radiation exposure."

The papers accuse Shaw Group of violating federal regulations and industry standards and of ignoring the workers' complaints about safety.

In some cases, the plaintiffs' attorney said, radioactive contamination was found on workers' clothing and in their vehicles and homes.

The lawyer said two workers have records verifying they were exposed to radiation beyond that allowed by federal guidelines. Shaw who said she has no connection to the company despite having the same name said the lawsuit was filed after the Shaw Group failed to provide exposure records for other workers.

Chris Sammons, a spokesman for the Shaw Group, based in Baton Rouge, La., said Wednesday that the company does not comment on pending litigation.

Two of the plaintiffs, including northwest Rochester resident Dominic Cotroneo, have suffered health problems that may be linked to the exposure, their attorney said. Among other things, Cotroneo suffered hair loss, which can by a symptom of acute radiation exposure, Linda Shaw said.

The workers also are concerned that they may have an increased risk of cancer or other illnesses. The lawsuit is seeking damages plus money that would be set aside to monitor the workers' health.

The 17 plaintiffs, who were employed by subcontractors that supplied labor to the Shaw Group, are what are known in the nuclear power industry as "jumpers" specially trained workers who travel from job to job, toiling for limited amounts of time in radioactive environments at each stop. Six plaintiffs live elsewhere in New York; the rest reside in other states.

Richard Ratliff, who heads the radiation control unit at the Texas Department of State Health Services, said the former Gulf Nuclear site was a well-known problem spot whose former owner had filed bankruptcy.

The abandoned building, in the Houston suburb of Webster, had been used to manufacture radioactive sensors used in the oil industry. It contained raw cesium and americium as well as finished sensors.

After the terrorist attacks, state health officials worried about the dirty-bomb potential and notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ratliff said. The concern was grave enough that officials posted guards around the site before and during the cleanup.

Though Texas officials had no formal oversight of the project, Ratliff said he heard that some cleanup workers had suffered relatively minor overexposure to radiation. But the exposures he heard about should not have caused acute health problems, Ratliff said.

Copyright 2005 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle


Posted on Thu, Mar. 10, 2005
Workers claim they suffered radiation poisoning during Texas cleanup
Associated Press

ROCHESTER, N.Y. - A group of nuclear-industry workers who helped clean up a contaminated industrial site in Texas in 2002 claim in a federal lawsuit they suffered serious radiation poisoning because their Louisiana-based employer failed to provide adequate safeguards.

Eighteen people employed by subcontractors allege that Shaw Group Inc., based in Baton Rouge, La., created such unsafe working conditions at the former Gulf Nuclear site in suburban Houston that many workers ended up walking off the job.

Shaw Group failed to provide adequate protection to workers and allowed them to suffer "excessive external and internal radiation exposure," according to the lawsuit filed last week at the federal court in Rochester.

One worker, Dominic Cotroneo of Rochester, suffered health problems that may be linked to acute radiation exposure, including hair loss, attorney Linda Shaw said.

"They were put in constant danger every day," Shaw said. "Some of them have been, we believe, significantly overexposed."

The workers, six of whom reside in New York state, accuse Shaw Group of violating federal regulations and industry standards and ignoring their complaints about safety. The Shaw Group declined to comment on the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages.

The industrial site in the Houston suburb of Webster, where radioactive sensors used in the oil industry were once made, was filled with radioactive cesium and americium - radiological material that federal authorities feared could potentially be used to make "dirty bombs."

The building was cleaned up and razed and the hazardous material was shipped to secure disposal sites.