Honeywell International has been sentenced to a $11.8 million fine after pleading guilty to violations involving radioactive material, only two days after signing a multi-million dollar cleanup agreement for a Superfund site.
The diversified Fortune 100 company pleaded guilty in federal court on Friday to a felony offense for knowingly storing hazardous waste without a permit, a violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). An official at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the company put its employees at risk of exposure to radioactive materials.
Honeywell did not have an RCRA permit to store drums of uranium and potassium hydroxide (KOH) at its uranium hexafluoride (UF6) conversion plant in Massac County, Ill. – the only facility in the country that converts natural uranium into UF6.
Only last Wednesday, Honeywell and Lockheed Martin signed an agreement with the EPA for design work, valued at $2.2 million, for an expanded cleanup system to treat contaminated groundwater at a North Hollywood, Ca., Superfund site.
Honeywell is licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to possess and otherwise manage natural uranium, which it converts into UF6 for nuclear fuel. At the Massac County plant – also called the Metropolis facility, after a nearby town – air emissions from the UF6 conversion process are scrubbed with KOH before they are discharged. The scrubbers and other equipment accumulate compounds that settle out of the liquid and are pumped as a slurry into 55-gallon drums. The material in the drums, called “KOH mud,” consists of uranium and KOH, and has a pH greater than or equal to 12.5.
Under the terms of the criminal plea agreement, Honeywell will serve a five-year term of probation. This requires Honeywell to comply with the terms of an interim consent order, entered into with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, that imposes a schedule for the processing of KOH mud.
Honeywell must also develop, fund, and implement a household hazardous waste collection program among residents surrounding the Massac County facility, and arrange for proper treatment, transportation, and disposal of this waste collected over a two year period, at a cost of about $200,000.
“The defendant’s illegal storage practices put employees at risk of exposure to radioactive and hazardous materials,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today’s plea agreement and sentencing shows that those who try to circumvent the law and place people’s health and the environment at risk will be vigorously prosecuted.”
“Today, Honeywell must account for its knowing violation of a federal law that protects the public from exposure to hazardous waste containing radioactive material,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. “All companies who generate hazardous waste must have a permit to store the waste and, when granted a permit under RCRA, must fully comply with its requirements or they will be prosecuted.”
In November 2002, Honeywell shut down part of the wet reclamation process it used to reclaim the uranium from the KOH mud, knowing that it would then have to store additional drums of KOH mud onsite until the reclamation process restarted, the U.S. EPA said. Honeywell also knew that, because the pH of KOH mud generated at the facility was greater than or equal to 12.5, it is classified as corrosive hazardous waste under RCRA rules, the EPA said.
Although the company received a modified permit for storing KOH mud in July 2008, in April 2009 EPA special agents conducted a search warrant and found nearly 7,500 illegally stored drums containing radioactive and hazardous waste, the agency said. Honeywell began storing the KOH mud drums in compliance with its RCRA permit around March 2010, the EPA said.