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Home / Articles / News / Local News /  Risky Business
Buckman-project-photo2
The Buckman Direct Diversion, located three miles downstream from Los Alamos National Laboratory, provides drinking water to 100,000 Santa Feans.

Risky Business

Questions persist over Buckman risk analysis

August 10, 2011, 12:00 am

Last November, Mark Sardella filed a complaint with the state, alleging that a report measuring the risk of contaminants flowing into the Buckman Direct Diversion was dangerously misguided. 


To Sardella, San Francisco-based consulting firm ChemRisk’s assessment—that Buckman water poses zero risk to the approximately 100,000 Santa Feans who drink it—is a mathematical impossibility.


“Have we lost our ability to think critically, or do we no longer grasp the concept of risk?” Sardella, an engineer for 23 years, wrote last November in a letter to the Santa Fe New Mexican.


Last year, the BDD Board commissioned ChemRisk to perform an independent peer review to identify whether contaminants in the Rio Grande would pose a risk to consumers. ChemRisk performed the analysis with Socorro-based hydrogeology research group Amec Earth & Environmental.


The report, which came at a price of $200,000, concluded that runoff from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the contaminated Los Alamos Canyon, both located three miles upstream from the Buckman, would result in no health risks to the roughly 60 percent of Santa Fe residents who use Buckman’s water. 


After his letter was published, Sardella says Roman Garcia, an investigator with the state’s Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Professional Surveyors, called him up and reminded him of an agreement engineers sign to report “any known violation” of engineers’ rules of conduct. 


Sardella quickly filed a complaint with the board. In it, he argues that assessing the health risks of a public water system constitutes engineering—meaning ChemRisk should have been properly licensed with the state. No one from ChemRisk currently shows up on the board’s rolls, Perry Valdez, the licensing administrator for the board, tells SFR. 


But when the board went to University of New Mexico civil engineering professor Bruce Thomson, he recommended the report not be considered engineering. 


“A risk analysis most of the time isn’t done by engineers,” Thomson tells SFR, mentioning hydrologists and toxicologists as examples of experts who often measure risk. 


In his complaint, Sardella also devises a formula. Since the intake pumps for the BDD will operate for many hours over many years, and since toxins from LANL are already present upstream from the BDD, Sardella maintains that, at some point, toxins are likely to enter Santa Fe’s drinking water. 


Sardella also challenges one of the report’s assumptions: that BDD water treatment always removes 95 percent of the water’s plutonium, americium, uranium and gross alpha emitters, four of LANL’s most hazardous runoff materials.


Assuming the BDD filter system always works turns any risk factor to zero, Sardella argues. “It’s a completely trivial calculation,” he says. “You don’t need $200,000 to make it.”


Matt Le, a senior health associate with ChemRisk who worked on the report, notes that the 95 percent removal wasn’t an assumption, but rather one of three scenarios stipulated to ChemRisk by the BDD Board. The other two scenarios measured contaminants in unfiltered Rio Grande water and at well fields. 


But many present at a public meeting last December expressed outrage after learning that ChemRisk didn’t collect its own water samples, relying instead on water-quality data from LANL and the New Mexico Environment Department [news, Dec. 15, 2010: “Murky Water”]. ChemRisk also didn’t measure water from storm conditions, which is when water from Los Alamos Canyon is known to overflow.


Still, Le says the report’s methods follow the US Environmental Protection Agency’s risk-assessment guidelines. The BDD Board and the New Mexico Environment Department have since signed off on it.


While risk levels exceed the NMED’s threshold, Stephen Wiman, a geologist who sits on the city’s Water Conservation Committee, says Santa Fe’s water is still EPA-compliant.


“Is it the right standard? That’s a whole different story,” Wiman tells SFR, adding that other countries have more rigorous standards. 


Still, citizens and activist groups—Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Healthy Waters NOW ASAP, former LANL consultant Robert H Gilkeson and professional engineer Michael A Crawford—have all publicly expressed skepticism over the ChemRisk report’s conclusions. 


ChemRisk has fielded similar challenges in the past. In 1997, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine retracted a study written by ChemRisk President Dennis Paustenbach concluding that chromium-6 didn’t correlate with stomach cancer. At the time, ChemRisk was working for Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which was being sued over chromium-6-infected drinking water in the Hinkley, Calif., case made famous by environmental activist Erin Brockovich. 


The JOEM retracted the study because Paustenbach failed to disclose his ties with PG&E. In 2009, Paustenbach updated the study in a different journal concluding that the heightened cancer rates near the alloy plant in Hinkley were unrelated to the chromium-6-infected water.


Since filing his complaint in November 2010, Sardella has heard nothing about the investigation’s status, aside from when he called the board’s office this past spring. Sardella asked to speak with Garcia, whom he presumed was in charge of the investigation, but he says Liz Montoya, who heads administrative, compliance and board functions, told him that Garcia wasn’t working with the board anymore.


Montoya tells SFR she doesn’t recall saying that, but confirmed Garcia was on administrative leave at the time for personal reasons. She says Garcia was never in charge of the investigation and isn’t a technical investigator, but rather a compliance manager. Garcia, whose role is listed under investigation and compliance on the board’s website, declined to speak with SFR.


The board contracts with two investigators, one in engineering and one in surveyors, Montoya says. Joe Barela, the contracted investigator for engineering, declined to comment on the complaint to SFR, citing its confidentiality. Complaints remain confidential until the board votes on an action after the investigation concludes. 


Frustrated over the lack of a response since he filed the complaint, Sardella has since gone public by blogging about it on his website and speaking about it on KSFR. But by doing so, he may have delayed the investigation even further.


All names on engineering complaints are redacted to prevent conflicts of interest board members could have with the company or persons involved.


“If he wants to go public and start saying all these things, he’s jeopardizing the case,” Montoya says.


The engineering board has up to two years to respond to a complaint, Montoya says, which can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Putting the case in the public realm could delay it further and even prompt the governor to appoint a different board to hear it, Montoya says.


State Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who has expressed concerns about lab runoff, says it’s ultimately up to the BDD Board to act on complaints like Sardella’s. But BDD Project Manager Rick Carpenter says the board is satisfied with the ChemRisk study, adding that it’s unfortunate Sardella is bringing it back up.


“We’re finished with the report,” Carpenter tells SFR. “The project is developed and we’re moving on.”


He adds that he’s not concerned with ChemRisk’s past.

 

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