Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 31 No. 39
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October 09, 2020

WCS Designation as Site for Mercury Long-term Storage Withdrawn by Energy Dept.

By Wayne Barber

The Department of Energy said in a Tuesday Federal Register notice that it is withdrawing its designation of Waste Control Specialists in West Texas as its long-term storage site for elemental mercury.

The DOE and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality previously granted the necessary approvals for the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) site in Andrews County to provide the long-term storage under the Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008. But that was before Nevada Gold Mines and other generators of this material filed suit in December 2019 over the fee they would be assessed by DOE for the management and storage of mercury at the private company’s site.

On Aug. 21, Nevada Gold Mines and DOE executed a settlement agreement in the U.S. District Court effectively halting imposition of the waste storage fee. As part of the deal, the department acknowledged that it made errors in the fee rule and asked the court to remand the fee rule back to the agency so it can take a second crack at the notice and comment process. The court granted the motion Sept. 5.

No elemental mercury has been accepted at WCS to date, said a DOE Environmental Management Office spokesperson, who added planning is underway for a fresh notice and comment period on mercury storage. It is conceivable that WCS could still end up as the mercury storage site after the fee rule is revisited, the spokesperson added. 

On remand, DOE will launch a notice-and-comment rulemaking to reconsider the estimates and assumptions used to calculate the fee and obtain updated information from interested parties.

The DOE rule being withdrawn would have set the fee for long-term management and storage of elemental mercury at WCS as $37,000 per metric ton plus a $3,250 fixed fee per shipment. A fiscal 2021 budget proposal passed by the House of Representatives would clear the way for DOE to start accepting fees from gold and silver miners.

Nevada Gold Mines, a joint venture of Barrick and Newmont, argued among other things in its complaint that the fee is exorbitantly high and said DOE failed to provide proper documentation on how it sets the price. The mining business argued that the department dragged its feet on the mercury storage issue since 2011 before trying to ram through its program in the past couple of years with insufficient stakeholder input. The mining interests also said WCS is a privately-owned rather than government property. 

In December of last year, DOE signed a lease and task order with Waste Control Specialists for storage under the Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008. But that lease expires June 4, 2021.

Waste Control Specialists declined to comment.

Back in January 2011, DOE studied eight locations at seven government and commercial sites as potential sites for long-term mercury storage. WCS emerged as the preferred alternative. Then in October 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency also evaluated the option of developing a facility near the DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. In June 2019 the DOE did a supplemental analysis, basically to see if anything changed since the 2013 environmental report.

In its earlier research, the Department of Energy identified a need for a facility capable of managing an elemental mercury inventory of up to 10,000 metric tons, which is roughly equal to 11,000 short tons over a 40-year period. Short tons are the 2,000-pound ton measurement used in the United States system, whereas metric tons are roughly 2,200 pounds.  In the 2013 supplemental analysis, DOE updated the projected inventory to show less potential volume, 6,800 metric tons or 7,480 short tons, according to Federal Register notice.

The 2008 mercury export ban is meant to reduce the availability of elemental or metallic mercury in domestic and international markets. By reducing the supply of elemental mercury in commerce, the Act aims to reduce the use of mercury in certain types of mining and for other commercial purposes. 

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