Tribal government leaders say Los Alamos National Laboratory and the US Department of Energy failed to consult with them about a now-stalled plan to vent radioactive tritium gas from four containers of Cold War-era waste.

While the DOE got clearance to release the gas last year, according to a March 30 statement by the All Pueblo Council of Governors, tribes and pueblos didn't have a chance to review the plans.

LANL's initial plan to begin ventilation on April 17 was later postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"These operations…won't be executed until the laboratory is able to support the activity with a full complement of operational personnel," confirms DOE National Nuclear Security Administration spokeswoman Toni Chiri by email. The containers in which the waste is stored "do not represent a risk to the public or the environment," she writes.

The tritium-contaminated waste is inside four 50-gallon, high-pressure storage vessels at Technical Area 54, less than 5 miles upwind from the White Rock community on the border of Pueblo de San Ildefonso land.

The containers need to be vented, lab officials say, because over time, the decomposition of tritiated water vapors inside them could cause a buildup of hazardous gasses that could rupture the containers during handling.

The lab anticipates the release will result in up to 8 millirems of off-site radiation, which is under the 10-millirem limit set by the federal government.

Chiri says the DOE "briefed" the two pueblos nearest the site about plans and issued a notice on April 3 about the delay.

The agency's failure to notify and consult with the tribes would conflict with federal statutes, treaty agreements and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These include agency specific DOE policies that require tribal consultation and, at a minimum, "timely notice" to tribes for any actions that could potentially impact a federally recognized tribal nation.

At the most granular level, Santa Clara Pueblo, Pueblo of Cochiti, Pueblo of Jemez and Pueblo de San Ildefonso all have individual cooperative agreements with LANL regarding environmental monitoring that require communication between the pueblos and the lab in the event of possible contamination.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors noted the potential overlap of the tritium venting and the COVID-19 emergency was particularly concerning because tribal leaders would not have the ability to meet in person to discuss the issue, and families are more likely to be at home.

"April is one the most active times of the year for our Pueblo communities practicing traditional and cultural responsibilities outside, and it's also one of the windiest," David Toledo, governor of Jemez Pueblo says in a statement. "On top of that, because of school closures more of our younger generations are outside. Releasing even small amounts of radioactive materials is unacceptable as many Pueblo borders are located within five miles of LANL and the prevailing winds are directed toward the Pueblos.

"For LANL to continue with their undertaking is a painful reminder of our Pueblos' history of health impacts associated with the radioactive exposure by the labs, during a time when our communities deserve to feel safe and focus on their health," Toledo concludes.

Small amounts of tritium from natural and manmade sources are commonly found in water, soil and air. The radioactive hydrogen isotope can be harmful when ingested in high doses.

Officials assure the planned tritium release will not exceed regulatory limits established by the EPA. However, some scientists argue these standards do not account for non-cancer risks of tritium exposure, which may include miscarriages and birth defects.

A petition by Santa Fe group Tewa Women United garnered more than 3,000 signatures and cites potential negative health impacts on females and infants as one reason to postpone the release and engage in a full public participation process.

The levels of tritium that are considered safe also vary greatly among countries. For example, the level of tritium allowed in drinking water ranges from 100 Bq/L in the European Union to 76,103 Bq/L in Australia. In the US, 740 Bq/L (20,000 pCi/L) is the standard; however, there continues to be scientific controversy about how this standard is calculated.

"The standards are not entirely health based," says Charles de Saillan, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, who tells SFR standards are "as much a policy decision as a health decision."

Sovereign tribal nations set their own environmental and health standards, which can sometimes differ from standards set by the EPA. The tribal consultation process could include negotiations to come to a mutual agreement about acceptable standards for a specific release or contamination event.