State proposes fine following radioactive spill in Sugar Land

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - The state of Texas is proposing a nearly $80,000 fine against a company at the center of a spill of radioactive material.

In April 2015, a small amount of Cesium 137 spilled inside the Thermo Fisher facility in Sugar Land.

At the time, the company handled the repair, maintenance and disposal of gauges used in the petrochemical and oil industries.

SCROLL DOWN TO SEE A TIMELINE OF THE INVESTIGATION

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the radioactive material was accidentally released while a technician was opening a gauge.

Lawsuits and state records show employees were exposed and carried some of the material to their homes. Some of that radioactive material also wound up outside the building in a city ditch and on surrounding properties.

All radioactive levels were deemed non-harmful, according to city and state officials.

Since then, the company has cleaned up everything that escaped the building but is continuing to remediate the inside of the building.

Per an agreement with the NRC, the Texas Department of State Health Services licenses and regulates facilities handling radioactive materials. The state recently released the findings of its investigation into the April 2015 incident and is proposing a $79,250 fine against the company for 13 alleged violations of state regulations.

Some of those alleged violations include failing to immediately notify the state of 10 other leaks in the building dating back to 2006, failing to secure radioactive material to prevent unauthorized access by leaving a container of radioactive material in an unrestricted area, and a 2008 instance where two employees were exposed to occupational doses of radiation at levels higher than the annual limit allowed.

While not directly addressing the 2015 incident, the state’s report does give insight as to how radioactive materials escaped the building. The report notes the room used to remove sealed containers of radioactive materials from devices lacked a filtered HVAC system.

“The removal of sources from devices was performed with a roll-up door, that opened directly to the outdoors, up. These lack of controls resulted in the release of radioactive material contamination from the Source Load room into other unrestricted areas inside the facility and outside onto the licensee’s property and surrounding properties,” the report read.

The 2015 spill prompted the company to speed up its timetable of an already planned shuttering of the facility.

The company ceased operations at the facility in the summer of 2015.

Officials with Thermo Fisher have not responded to KPRC’s request for a comment. However, state officials said the company has requested an “informal conference and hearing” to “contest the Department’s proposed action.”

Below is a timeline of the Thermo Fisher investigation:

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