Amended Detections

Are activist concerns over potentially contaminated water misguided?

If a recent tussle between a local engineer and officials from Los Alamos National Laboratory shows anything, it's that one lab's error is another man's dilemma.

A year ago, LANL reported findings of small amounts of tritium in the Santa Fe water system's Buckman well field. Tritium, a naturally occurring radioactive isotope of hydrogen, can cause birth defects and early miscarriages in women, among other problems, if consumed at high levels. It's been found at significant levels in groundwater near LANL, a likely result of past nuclear weapons testing.

"Drinking a radionuclide is always a bad idea," Mark Sardella, the local engineer and activist who's made public presentations about the initial tritium findings, tells SFR.

Since December, Sardella has been engaged in a drawn-out struggle with LANL to get the data that supports the March 2011 findings.

The findings initially detected tritium in three Buckman wells located downstream from LANL at a rate of between 2.46 and 3.93 picocuries per liter. That's much lower than the US Environmental Protection Agency's drinking water standard of 20,000 picocuries, but activists are concerned that the tritium may be coming from lab-contaminated runoff that is entering the water supply and that it could increase over the years.

Officials from LANL and around the state, however, are quick to dismiss the idea that contaminants can get into the water supply.

City Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger, who serves as vice president of the Buckman Direct Diversion Project Board, says the issue of contamination is something the board addresses at every meeting.

"We feel confident that we have a system in place" to prevent contamination in the drinking water, Wurzburger tells SFR.

When the tritium levels in the wells were detected, LANL officials said the samples differed from previous Buckman well samples, which found no tritium. LANL tests water from the wells four times a year.

"A flag went off," Danny Katzman, an environmental manager with LANL, tells SFR. "We had been using a different lab with a long history of non-detects."

Before, LANL had been shipping its routine water samples to the University of Miami for tritium analysis. In 2008, LANL started sending those samples to American Radiation Services, a private lab in Louisiana. Katzman says that, between 2008 and 2011, about 20 or so routine samples detected tritium at some level.

LANL has since attributed the detections to human errors in the analysis, Katzman says.

But Sardella is skeptical.

He's been trying to get his hands on the original March 2011 report, a process Sardella says has been a "comedy of errors and miscommunications" between him and the lab.

It started with emails Sardella sent to Lorrie Bonds Lopez, who does outreach for LANL's environmental programs. After searching for documents in the lab's electronic reading room, Sardella couldn't find the original analysis showing the tritium findings. Sardella asked the lab to post all of the data—spreadsheets, case narratives, etc.—that accompanied the March 2011 study.

Lopez replied that the information already posted was accurate and "corrects the miscalculations performed by the analytical laboratory." Sardella quickly replied, "Are you saying the test data for the March 14 assessments is included in the data attachments? I don't see anything dated March…"

The exchange continued over the next few months, with Sardella's growing frustration evidenced in messages such as, "This e-mail represents my seventh written request for the same information" and "Is it clear at this point that I'm looking for the original data, before 'corrections' have been made to it?"

"They keep sending me the same shit as if I'm asking for it," Sardella says.

The most recent email exchange occurred on Feb. 16—but Sardella says he still doesn't have the data he's repeatedly requested.

"I can't tell if ANY of the data I'm being shown represents what a lab technician found prior to the data being 'corrected' and the 'round off errors' being adjusted," he writes in an email to SFR.

Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, says the fact that LANL hasn't just given Sardella the data he wants is suspect. She also notes that tritium has been detected in LANL's groundwater near the Buckman wells.

Katzman says that, although the groundwater and the Buckman wells are physically close to each other, their water systems aren't connected. He also attributes Sardella's frustration to miscommunication.

"He may be asking for the wrong info," Katzman says. Regardless, he says, LANL is planning to call Sardella and straighten things out soon.

"The main point here is that the data clearly show, and the city understands, that there's no tritium in the Buckman wells," Katzman says. "Any questions that a change was made to hide something—we would never engage in anything like that."

Sardella has also had his issues with the Buckman Direct Diversion, which diverts water from the Rio Grande to Santa Fe's water supply. In November 2010, he filed a complaint with the state's Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers and Professional Surveyors over a risk analysis of the BDD done by ChemRisk, a California-based company infamous for covering up for chromium-6-infected water in southern California in the 1990s [news, Aug. 10, 2011: "Risky Business"]. The complaint has since been dismissed.

Hydrogeologist Robert Gilkeson, who worked with LANL in the late '90s before leaving in disgust, says LANL should have an outside party assess the tritium detections rather than making the call itself.

"Tritium was detected in the wells as reported by the contractor, and then the LANL scientists come on and say it was a mistake," Gilkeson says. "That's completely unacceptable."

But others say the level of attention paid to potential contamination in the city's water supply is misguided.

"I have never thought that the Buckman wells could be contaminated, period," Greg Mello, executive director of the activist Los Alamos Study Group, tells SFR. "I don't see any evidence that they can be."

He recalls a few years ago when activists raised concerns about finding plutonium in the Buckman wells, which he says were later dismissed. Mello attributes the dispute to "well-intentioned people not thinking clearly."

"This is the way climate [change] deniers look at arguments," he says. "They look for some trivial problem and blow it all up out of proportion."

ARS hasn't analyzed new samples from the Buckman wells since the tritium mishap, but Katzman says the next set of results is due "imminently." He adds that LANL expects no detection of tritium in them.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.