Hours before the Las Conchas fire spread to sacred pueblo land, Marian Naranjo sat nervously in downtown Santa Fe, anticipating the inevitable.
She recalls her grandkids clinging to her leg the night before. They could see flames from their house, she says.
“Right now, it’s just a scary thought if our canyons catch fire,” Naranjo, a resident of Santa Clara Pueblo and founder of Honor Our Pueblo Existence, told SFR on the afternoon of June 29.
“If our canyon catches on fire, what are we going to do?” Naranjo said at the time. “That’s our water resource.”
By the next day, the wildfire had plowed through 6,000 acres of Santa Clara’s watershed and sacred ceremonial sites. In a press release, Walter Dasheno, governor of Santa Clara, expressed his community’s devastation in witnessing “the destruction of our homeland.”
That same day, the wildfire became the largest in the state’s history. As of July 5, it totaled 127,821 acres and was still only 27 percent contained.
As the fire spread south, west and north of Los Alamos National Laboratory during the first week, concerns mounted about its burning through watersheds and contaminated land. On June 30, Lab Director Charlie McMillan acknowledged concerns that historic waste storage near Los Alamos Canyon could ignite. McMillan also admitted uncertainty in gauging the true amount of historic waste dumped in the canyons decades ago under looser regulations.
“We do know some things that are out there,” McMillan told reporters at a press conference. “Is our knowledge perfect? No. Is it zero? No.”
A 2009 US Department of Energy report says efforts to clean up old waste sites in the canyons around Los Alamos have been ongoing since 1989. Initially, the agency identified more than 2,000 sites for “further investigation and possible cleanup.” Sixty percent of them had been treated by the time of the report, but it warned that “substantial work” still had to be done to clear all of the waste.
Many are currently worried about the vulnerability of these historic waste sites.
“How much contamination has been taken up by the trees and the plants that are being burnt?” Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety in Santa Fe, tells SFR. “What is the toxic cocktail that we’re breathing?”
Doug Meiklejohn, the executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, shares Arends’ fear that the fire could burn radioactive material and release it into the air. But he also has a second concern: erosion of the contaminated soil near the canyons where waste was once dumped.
“Fire makes the soil less stable,” Meiklejohn explains. “When it rains, the soil in the canyons can go into the Rio Grande.”
This summer’s impending monsoon season amplifies that scenario. Burnt land is much more likely to get washed away during a rainfall because of less vegetation, Daniel Porter, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, tells SFR. Rain can then easily carry ash and contaminants downstream.
Gary Schiffmiller, a biologist in the Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau, recalls that the Viveash burns of 2000 brought enough sediment into the Pecos River to raise its mercury level and kill fish.
“Water can be so filled with ash that it can literally smother fish and other organisms,” Schiffmiller tells SFR. He’s concerned that flash floods in Los Alamos could have the same effect.
After the 2000 Cerro Grande fire, it took two years for the leftover ash—and five or six years for the radioactive contaminants—to fully flush out, Ralph Ford-Schmid, a scientist with the DOE Oversight Bureau at the New Mexico Environment Department, tells SFR. The New Mexico State Forestry Division did the bulk of the cleanup.
“We made aggressive efforts to deal with erosion concerns,” Dan Ware, a spokesman with the Forestry Division, tells SFR. “I imagine we’ll have to do that again here.”
Erosion may be less of a problem this time because the pueblo canyons haven’t burnt as badly, Ford-Schmid says. But he adds that fires have been blazing in Pajarito Canyon, Los Alamos Canyon and Water Canyon. Some were also spotted near the Buckman Direct Diversion Project, which is a reason for concern because it provides up to 60 percent of Santa Fe’s drinking water.
“We will see poor water quality,” he says.
The lab says it’s installed a wide variety of runoff controls and warning systems to halt sediment migration. Officials have also repeatedly said they’ve found no evidence in the smoke to suggest anything different from a normal forest fire.
“The National Laboratory is one of the most scrutinized places environmentally in the world,” Jeff Berger, a lab spokesman, tells SFR. “We’re very open with regulators about what we find in the air, the water and the surface water runoff.”
Still, the smoke itself has been thick enough to seriously hinder surrounding air quality. On June 29, at the height of the fire, the state Environment Department and the Forest Service classified Los Alamos’ air quality index as “hazardous” and White Rock’s as “very unhealthy.” Even on July 4, the air quality index for Los Alamos, White Rock and Cochiti Pueblo was still listed as “unhealthy.”
Berger says the lab will keep aggressive monitoring of air quality in check. But while the Environment Department has five air monitors stationed around the area, it still can take up to a week to conduct an accurate reading. That’s long compared to the wildfire’s growth, which spread to more than 100,000 acres in less than a week.
Further, critics aren’t taking the lab’s words at face value. At first, the lab wouldn’t confirm that it had 10,000-30,000 drums containing plutonium-contaminated waste stored in tents on its property. Soon, it backtracked, admitting that the drums were there, but downplaying the severity of consequences if they caught on fire.
While the lab contended that the barrels wouldn’t be breached, renowned physicist Michio Kaku argued that it couldn’t be sure of its claim.
“No one has fully tested everything under the real conditions of a fire,” Kaku told KOAT-TV on June 28. “In other words, we are in the middle of a science experiment.”
Concerns that the drums might burn faded as the fire spread away from the lab, but the Las Conchas fire has nevertheless created a new level of uncertainty about the future.
Though the toxicity of the lab’s contaminants is real, LANL is still expanding its operations to include a new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility, a $3-$6 billion building that could store up to 6,000 kilograms of plutonium.
To some residents, though, what happens at the lab is of only peripheral concern. When the Las Conchas fire swelled into the Santa Clara Canyon, it burned much of the pueblo’s watershed and sacred ceremonial sites. The surrounding Native communities have used the springs near the canyons to survive for centuries, Naranjo says.
“I can understand the national concern to protect the Los Alamos National Lab,” Naranjo says, “but to Native communities, our concern is our cultural survival.”