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Nevada To Inspect Tailings at Yucca Mountain For Dust Hazard

Feb 11, 2004 | AP Nevada will inspect volcanic-rock tailings piled up outside the tunnel at Yucca Mountain to see if they pose a blowing dust hazard at the planned national nuclear waste dump, the state's environmental protection chief said.

"We will go out and take a look to see if it's a dust problem," Environmental Protection Division Administrator Allen Biaggi told the Las Vegas Review-Journal for a Wednesday report.

The state decision to inspect the site came after former Yucca Mountain project workers alleged they were exposed to toxic dust while drilling the 5-mile long test tunnel in the mid-1990s.

Yucca Mountain spokesman Allen Benson said the Energy Department has not been contacted by the state about the inspection.

He said the pile was not considered waste rock by the Energy Department because it could be used later to fill the tunnel after the repository is loaded with 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive industrial and defense waste.

Classifying the tailings as waste rock could make it subject to federal hazardous waste laws.

State Nuclear Projects Agency Executive Director Bob Loux, Gov. Kenny Guinn's top anti-Yucca aide, said the state has the authority to review any possible environmental or public health and safety concern.

"If the federal government isn't going to do it, the state will probably have to step in and begin regulating," he said.

Biaggi said a state Environmental Protection Division inspector would inspect the site this week for possible sources of inhalable dust particles under the federal Clean Air Act.

"We'll look for potential sources of dust from the material and look at what process this came from," he said.

The division has no authority to inspect the tunnel or ventilation systems inside buildings at the site. The lavender-colored rock pile is several hundred yards east of the tunnel's north portal, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for monitoring inside the tunnel under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which covers at least two fibrous zeolite minerals found in the mountain, erionite and mordenite.

Of key concern is erionite, a carcinogen that scientists from the Los Alamos, N.M. national laboratory found at Yucca Mountain, according to a report written in 1989.

An EPA official told the Review-Journal that the tailings might be exempt from hazardous waste regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The state oversees the act in Nevada, which covers mining and other activities involving potentially hazardous materials.

But Cheryl Nelson, a regulator at the EPA San Francisco regional office, said hazardous waste regulations would apply if the rock was discarded and it exhibited a "hazardous characteristic."

Hazardous characteristics usually refer to the possibility that toxic metals like lead or chromium could leach from tailings and contaminate groundwater supplies.

One former tunnel construction supervisor, Gene Griego, 52, of North Las Vegas, claims he and others contracted chronic lung diseases from inhaling fibrous silicate-laced minerals, including erionite, inside the Yucca Mountain tunnel.

The Energy Department acknowledged last month that some of the more than 1,200 tunnel workers might have been exposed to silica dust, and began offering free silicosis screenings.

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