Updated at 5:05pm Tuesday; correction 9:16am Wednesday.
The details change, but the story never does.
The latest Los Alamos National Laboratory
(LANL) brouhaha unfolded yesterday, when the New Mexico Environment Department
slammed the lab with a hefty $960,000 penalty for failing to properly monitor radioactive pollutants in nearby watersheds. This time, it's particularly scary: the groundwater in question provides drinking water for Los Alamos County, White Rock and the lab itself—“and it may well be the same aquifer that's connected to the Buckman well field,” the environment department's hazardous waste bureau chief, James Bearzi, says. Without proper monitoring, Bearzi worries the lab's cleanup of Material Disposal Area G, its only active (and unlined!) waste disposal site, due to be finished by 2015, may do little to deal with the radioactive contaminants leaching into New Mexico's precious water resources.
LANL, of course, sees things differently. “We respectfully believe we were compliant,” Environment Programs Spokesperson Fred deSousa tells SFReeper. “The problem,” deSousa says, “is [that] we thought there was an agreement.”
The agreement to which deSousa refers is a 2007 work plan—an outline for cleaning up Area G, part of Technical Area 54. According to deSousa, both LANL and the state agreed to a particular work plan for the cleanup through a 2005 consent order. In Bearzi's view, the latest state-DOE dustup is just another tick on a long timeline of disagreements over LANL's inability to responsibly mitigate its environmental impact.
“The laboratory has a history of denial,” Bearzi says. “If you go back 15 years, the laboratory denied that anything toxic or dangerous could even get to the aquifer”—to the point that the state basically had to force it to put in the necessary monitoring wells, he says.
“Most of the wells they put in found something,” Bearzi says. “Then, in 2005, we learned about the chromium contamination in the regional aquifer that was eight times the state groundwater standard. And the lab has consistently denied whatever the next step is.”
“We acted in good faith and installed new wells and gathered new data and continue to do so,” deSousa says. “We believe we submitted compliant reports.”
That debate could continue forever—and it already has, in hundreds of incarnations. But what's interesting about this one is the jurisdiction question: Who's in charge of keeping New Mexico's groundwater safe?
In numerous instances, LANL and its operator, the US Department of Energy
, have expressed the opinion that the lab is perfectly capable of monitoring and mitigating its own pollution. But the New Mexico Environment Department maintains that state standards for radionuclide levels apply to LANL, too—primarily because, as Environment Secretary Ron Curry put it in a written statement yesterday, “DOE self-regulation of dangerous radioactive pollution does not work.” While the EPA is generally responsible for regulating hazardous waste, it also makes a common practice of authorizing states to implement their own rules, as it did for New Mexico in 2007—which seems to suggest that the state should have the final word.
Update: New Mexico Environment Secretary Curry said the following in an e-mail to SFR:
We have the authority to require monitoring and reporting of radionuclide contamination if it is associated with our regulation of RCRA hazardous waste (i.e., chemical waste). That is the case here. DOE does not acknowledge that we have such authority. We received state authorization for our hazardous waste rules from EPA long before 2007. We received that authorization in 1985.
Even so, that big-budget federal agencies (LANL's
the Nuclear Nuclear Security Administration's 2010 budget request is a whopping $9.9 billion
) would respond to the environmental posturing of a small, blue, nearly-broke Western state seems dubious, but Bearzi says assessing penalties has a certain efficacy.
“We've already assessed over $2 million in penalties for other violations of the  consent order, and they've paid them,” Bearzi says. “And every time, even after fighting and arguing about it, ultimately, they've not only paid the penalty, but they've corrected the violation.” According to the 2005 consent agreement, the penalty for LANL's failing to comply with the agreed-upon standards would be penalized at $1,000 a day for the first 30 days of noncompliance and $3,000 a day thereafter.
But LANL's record still isn't, as any New Mexican knows, pristine. An $1.87 fine assessed for water contamination last May still hasn't been paid; if LANL respectfully disagrees with the state's assessment, who'll make them pay?
“We consider this another in the long line of actions we have to keep taking to keep [LANL] from straying off the course of cleanup and to keep them focused on the promises that they made to New Mexico,” Bearzi says.
“They're putting in decent wells now, but it's too little and it's too late,” he adds.
On whether LANL plans to pay the penalty, deSousa says, “It's too early to say.”