Federal waste dump sells tons of excavated salt

AP News
Posted: Dec 24, 2009 2:12 PM

Hundreds of tons of salt excavated from the Department of Energy's underground nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico are destined for cattle feed in Texas.

The DOE's Carlsbad field office has reached an agreement with Magnum Minerals LLC of Hereford, Texas, which will buy up to 300,000 tons of salt from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, known as WIPP.

Magnum Minerals has contracted for $600,000 worth of salt, most of which will go into cattle feed, company president Tim Gearn said. Cattle feed is required to have certain minerals, including salt.

It's the first such sale from WIPP, which eventually will have to get rid of the salt that's excavated for waste disposal rooms, said Vernon Daub, deputy manager of the field office. WIPP, which opened in March 1999, has an expected 35-year lifespan.

Rooms to store waste will continue to be excavated as needed in the ancient salt beds 2,150 feet below the New Mexico desert. WIPP eventually is expected to receive about 38,000 shipments from DOE sites around the country.

The DOE has estimated it would cost $15 per ton to haul the salt to a municipal landfill, Daub said.

Daub could not say how much salt already has been excavated, but said there will be plenty to fulfill the contract.

"For us, the advantage is not having to dispose of the salt and put in a landfill," he said. "We have to pay someone to dispose of it at the end of the project sometime in future. It's a cost savings or cost avoidance for us."

WIPP buries defense-related waste such as protective clothing and tools, largely contaminated with plutonium, which remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

Currently, excavated salt from the storage rooms is stored at the WIPP site east of Carlsbad. Once a salt pile reaches a certain level, the DOE covers it to protect it from the weather.

"From the public standpoint, you wouldn't want to put a lot of this in the landfill," Daub said.

The DOE tried to sell WIPP salt a few years ago, putting out a notification of interest in taking bids. Daub said it got no response.

But the idea stayed alive through word of mouth, and more recently, interest in the salt picked up, he said. Magnum Minerals was the successful bidder.

Gearn said the quality of WIPP's salt is high because it has been mined from the middle of the vast salt formation.

Hereford _ which calls itself the "beef capital of the world" _ has the largest concentration of cattle feed yards of anywhere in the world, according to Gearn and the Hereford-based Deaf Smith County Chamber of Commerce.

The Soil and Water Conservation District in Carlsbad is handling the contract.

That's because the law that withdrew land for WIPP's use requires the U.S. secretary of agriculture to handle such transactions, and in turn the district became the agent for salt contract. The district will keep the costs of handling the contract, and any funds above that go to the U.S. Treasury, Daub said.