In less than three weeks, water from the Buckman Direct Diversion Project will start flowing through Santa Feans' taps. But the peer review report intended to assure the public of the water's safety, along with revelations about the contractor's past, have instead raised more red flags.
The BDD was conceived 20 years ago as a way to meet Santa Fe's future water needs by diverting Rio Grande water to a new water-treatment plant west of the city.
The diversion point is just three miles from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the contaminated Los Alamos Canyon. As such, $200,000 of the project's total $217 million price tag went to an independent peer review (IPR) designed to examine whether the levels of chemicals and radionuclides found in the Rio Grande at the diversion point pose any risks to human health. The review contractor ChemRisk, whose fee was paid through a Department of Energy grant, brought on board Amec Earth and Environmental, a Socorro-based corporate hydrogeology research company.
According to the IPR report's four-page distillation presented at a Dec. 7 public meeting, water at the diversion site is safe to drink based on the total estimated increased cancer risk of one in 10,000 for all contaminates.
However, the 317-page technical version of the IPR states, albeit in small type encoded in unfamiliar notation, that the risk for all the radionuclides combined is 1.76 in 10,000.
The New Mexico Environment Department considers an increased cancer risk of more than one in 100,000 unacceptable. The combined increased cancer risk for all this water's radionuclides not only exceeds that benchmark, but also the less stringent US Environmental Protection Agency risk level of one in 10,000.
ChemRisk President Dennis Paustenbach tells SFR that, given the overall risk that Americans have of getting cancer regardless, the difference between one and 1.76 out of 10,000 is insignificant.
"Someone might have rounded off," Paustenbach says.
Ralph Ford-Schmid, an environmental scientist with the NMED DOE Oversight Bureau, tells SFR that ChemRisk explains that, although that risk estimate is unacceptably high, it's based on drinking raw water.
"This isn't a number that is representative of the final product…We're confident and they're confident that the plant will remove so much of these naturally occurring contaminants that the water will be safe to drink," Ford-Schmid says.
However, Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, which has followed the project since its inception, says the discrepency "just demonstrates one of the inconsistencies between what a normal member of the public would look at, this four-pager, and maybe what someone with a little bit of extra interest is going to look at," leading to public misinformation.
Although the risk is based on untreated water, the scientists adjusted the data by assuming that filtration will remove 95 percent of the observed uranium, plutonium and americium. However, the report does not document that assumption.
Audience members who packed the Dec. 7 public meeting also were surprised to learn the reviewers didn't actually collect any water. Instead, the scientists analyzed water quality data obtained by LANL and the state Environment Department during the last decade. Arends says the IPR doesn't point clearly to which samples were used, making it hard to verify ChemRisk's findings.
"We want to see which data they used, and we haven't been able to see that," Arends says. "From over 20 years of working on LANL issues, we know that we need to look at the data, so that's one of our biggest concerns."
Arends knew the IPR wouldn't be based on new samples. However, she learned for the first time at the meeting that the IPR's findings did not include water from periods of storm conditions, which is when radioactive waste is known to overflow out of Los Alamos Canyon into the Rio Grande.
When Amec hydrogeologist Gregory Miller explained to the crowd that it was "not a consideration" of the IPR to evaluate samples from storm conditions, some audience members strongly objected.
"I'm the person who's going to be drinking this water, and I would like to know why that was not considered. And now I want to request that that be considered and be part of this assessment," crowd member Anne Hansen said, to thunderous applause.
The risks posed by storm water are supposed to be mitigated by LANL's early warning system, which is designed to alert BDD when water flow in the Rio Grande exceeds a certain volume per minute. But public trust in that system was already compromised after it took LANL 24 hours to notify BDD of storm conditions in August. BDD Director Rick Carpenter tells SFR that receiving an email from LANL within 24 hours is acceptable, and the system will automatically stop diverting water 30 minutes after the flow increase is registered.
Miller told the crowd that he wished he could provide answers about contaminate levels at the diversion point during storm conditions, but he "was provided a scope of work to execute, which I had no part in designing," prescribed by BDD, LANL and NMED.
Afterward, Miller declined by phone to answer SFR's questions.
Ethical accusations of a more formal nature have dogged Paustenbach, who took a higher-profile role in the IPR after the sudden death last summer of lead investigator Tom Widner. The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine retracted a 1997 paper Paustenbach worked on when employed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which was then embroiled in the civil action suit famously spearheaded by Erin Brockovitch. Paustenbach paid a Chinese researcher to "translate" his findings connecting chromium-6 and stomach cancer from Chinese; the paper published in English concluded that there was no positive correlation.
According to an article in The Scientist, the JOEM's reasons for retraction were not related to data misrepresentation but, rather, due to Paustenbach's failure to disclose PG&E's support of the work. Nevertheless, a "more complete" version of the research was published last year in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. The new study says that, although the population in the areas nearest the alloy plant had higher lung cancer and all-cancer rates than the surrounding district and province averages, no clear correlation was found between the actual amounts of chromium contamination in an area's water and its cancer rates.
"We just decided that because enough questions had been raised about the quality of the work or the integrity of the work, [we'd do] a full, a massive disclosure of all [the primary researcher's] studies," Paustenbach tells SFR.
Environmental Working Group Senior Scientist Renee Sharp tells SFR that independent scientists' analyses of the data conflicted with Paustenbach's conclusions in both studies.
"I have been privy to analysis conducted by the state of California…where scientists looking at the data and doing their own analyses found quite significantly that there was an effect," Sharp says. She tells SFR that she is more inclined to believe the scientists, who have no conflict of interest, over Paustenbach, "a PG&E expert witness."
When independent scientists raised questions about the chromium controversy in 2001, Paustenbach resigned from his new position on the California Environmental Health Hazard Assessment board, a panel assembled to determine the acceptable level of chromium-6 in drinking water.
Carpenter tells SFR he has never heard of the chromium research controversy regarding ChemRisk and Paustenbach.
"I think it was a pretty bad decision [for BDD to hire ChemRisk], especially when public trust in a process is so important," Sharp tells SFR. "You really need to really pick a company that doesn't have any kind of ethical swipes and this one has several—I think that was probably a poor choice."
The Buckman Direct Diversion Project will hold a meeting at 4 pm Thursday, Dec. 16 in Santa Fe City Council chambers to answer final public questions.