Even as Los Alamos National Labs takes on contracts for new weapons manufacturing, taxpayers are still shelling out for the clean-up costs of contamination dating back to atomic bomb testing. The latest clean-up proposals will likely leave hazardous waste in the ground. Meanwhile, recent hazardous waste safety violations add up to $222,313.
N3B, the company recently contracted by the US Department of Energy to complete a significant portion of remaining clean-up efforts, gave a presentation to the public at the Santa Fe Community College on Thursday as part of a series of community meetings leading up to the process to decide methods for cleaning up several contaminated legacy waste sites around LANL.
“Our mission is very clear and it’s very straight forward,” said N3B spokesman Frazer Lockhart, emphasizing the company’s commitment to transparency and public engagement as part of the process. “It’s about dealing with groundwater contamination concerns, surface water and sediment contamination issues, disposal sites, material disposal areas that date all the way back to the Manhattan Era that need to be addressed and remediated in some fashion, and the other release sites all over the 40 some square miles of the labs that have to be investigated.”
According to N3B and the DOE, clean-up of legacy sites is already more than half-way complete as the result of nearly three decades of cleanup and remediation projects.
But disagreements about how much waste actually needs to be removed for a site to be considered "clean" remain unresolved between the DOE, other political entities such as the City of Santa Fe, and watchdog groups who contend that current DOE standards will leave the vast majority of the waste buried in place above the region's most important aquifer—a threat to the region's future water security.
A flyer N3B distributed at the meeting matched numbers provided by the DOE: 2,100 contaminated sites ranging from small pits to large landfills have been identified for clean up; initial investigations have been completed for 90% of these sites; over one half of legacy clean-up has been completed over the last 26 years.
Many of the questions submitted by the audience Thursday asked for more details: What standards is N3B using to determine if clean-up is complete? How clean is “clean”? Does the waste pose an immediate danger to human or animal health?
Lockhart’s answer to the last question was a clear no, but the other questions were more complicated.
Under the 10-year $1.38 billion “Los Alamos Legacy Cleanup Contract” the company signed with the Department of Energy in January 2018, N3B is responsible for legacy cleanup at sites including Technical Area 21, a Manhattan Project and Cold War-era plutonium processing facility, and Area G—one of the largest dumpsites at the Lab that was opened in 1957.
Lockhart told forum attendees that current treatment methods are showing positive results in reducing chromium levels.
For sites like Technical Area 21 and Area G that contain material wastes, such as transuranic waste and contaminated buildings, equipment, and soil, clean-up methods are still being determined. While public input will influence N3B recommendations, ultimately it is the DOE, not the public or N3B, that will determine what sites need to be cleaned up and the standards for remediation that must be met.
Yet, according to watchdog group Nuke Watch New Mexico, that leaves 690,251 cubic meters of waste permanently buried on-sight in unlined pits and shafts above a regional aquifer that provides drinking water for San Ildefonso Pueblo, Española, Los Alamos and Santa Fe, among other communities. Nuke Watch Executive Director Jay Coghlan tells SFR this number is from analysis of publicly available LANL documents and data.
The aquifer is legally defined by the EPA as a "sole source aquifer," meaning that it "supplies at least 50 percent of the drinking water for its service area" and "there are no reasonably available alternative drinking water sources should the aquifer become contaminated," according to the EPA website.
In 2017, the Santa Fe City Council adopted a resolution calling for more stringent standards for cleanup efforts and calling out the consent order governing cleanup efforts for incorporating “giant loopholes whereby LANL can avoid comprehensive cleanup by simply claiming it is too comprehensive or costly.”
The concerns of city councilors at the time, as further stated in the resolution, included previous contamination of drinking water sources in the Rio Grande and the mere 5 mile proximity between Los Alamos contaminated sites and the city’s Buckman Well Field.
“Full cleanup of LANL would be a win-win for New Mexicans, permanently protecting our precious groundwater resources and the Rio Grande while creating hundreds of high paying jobs for twenty years or more if the wastes were fully removed,” the resolution reads.
It also cites an alarming history of repeated safety infractions that were exposed to wide-spread public scrutiny in 2017 after Center for Public Integrity wrote a series of investigative articles which chronicle a decade of waste mismanagement by the labs.
LANL has renewed promises and commitments to safety in subsequent years, but just last week on August 20 the New Mexico Environment Department hit the labs with yet another fine of $222,313 for 16 individual violations of hazardous waste management regulations.
The latest violations include failure to properly label hazardous waste containers and identify container content, failure to take precautions to prevent accidental reactions of waste materials, and, most egregiously, failure to properly protect containers of waste being stored outdoors from the elements. This last violation alone accounts for $120,000 in fines.
At the meeting Thursday, Lockhart acknowledged that it is unlikely for all legacy waste to be excavated and removed. Much of what remains will likely be sealed by a protective covering and left in the ground, where, Lockhart says, it will remain harmless.
Lockhart told the assembly that “safety, equity, and economic issues come into play” when deciding to dig up waste that lies dormant deep underground. Bringing waste to the surface makes it subject to environmental factors that could cause a leakage of radioactive materials during the excavation process and expose workers to hazardous conditions, Lockhart explained. The waste then becomes a hazard to communities that lie along the transport routes to final disposal sites, putting them at risk of exposure in case of road or train accidents, and brings up equity issues for whatever location in which it is ultimately disposed of, he said.
It is also an extremely labor intensive and expensive proposal.
“Those are the hard decisions,” said Lockhart, “because the trade offs aren’t just time and money and how clean you make it, but there are a lot of other issues that go into it as well, and that’s essentially what the stakeholder engagement process is about.”
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