In 1943 the United States was in need of a centralized place to host the Manhattan Project, a two-billion-dollar military undertaking staffed with hundreds of thousands of employees racing to develop the atomic bomb before Nazi Germany. Sixty-four years later, with the war that established the lab long over, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) continues to develop nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, these operations have been to the detriment of soil and groundwater, as the 36-square-mile lab now houses hundreds of waste sites contaminated with dangerous substances, some of which have already shown up in water supplies. Currently the lab is in the midst of what might be an even larger undertaking than building the bomb: Cleaning up decades of dumping, over acres and acres of land before 2015.
During the last two weeks of 2006, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) fined LANL $1,000 a day for noncompliance with the NMED Consent Order, a piece of 2005 litigation that gives the Environment Department jurisdiction over LANL's cleanup of non-radioactive legacy waste. This means that while the Department of Energy oversees purely radioactive waste that lacks a chemical or hazardous component, NMED has authority over the destiny of all other waste, leftover from years of various operations. The deadline for its cleanup under the Consent Order is December 2015.
Last winter's dispute resulted in one of five enforcement actions issued during the last six months of 2006. This final action was in relation to undrilled boreholes at one of the lab's several hundred contaminated sites, Material Disposal Area (MDA) C. This site, an old 11.8-acre landfill that operated between 1947 and 1974, consists of six disposal pits, a chemical disposal pit and 108 disposal shafts, all unlined and previously unmonitored. It is one of 20-plus MDAs encompassing nearly every letter of the alphabet. MDA C, which has caught fire at least twice during its operational history, contains an unknown variety of wastes. Known wastes that are both hazardous and radioactive, including tritium (which is radioactive) and volatile organic compounds (chemicals that readily produce vapors, like gasoline and solvents), have leaked and, according to the NMED, are now present at depths hundreds of feet below the surface. Furthermore, the NMED says the several feet of crushed rock with which the site was covered in 1974 is eroding on its eastern edge toward Ten Site Canyon, a tributary of Mortandad Canyon which runs through San Ildefonso Pueblo.
Originally, LANL agreed to drill 11 boreholes (small exploratory wells) at MDA C in order to ascertain the progression of leaks and environmental threats at the site. Later, NMED allowed the number of boreholes to be reduced to four after the lab expressed safety concerns. When data from the four boreholes was not turned in at the beginning of December of last year, NMED began doling out penalties. LANL spokesperson James Rickman says despite absent borehole data, a comprehensive report was turned in on time. "We were not comfortable turning in data from the four additional boreholes unless we could be absolutely sure that we could collect those data in such a fashion that it would not endanger our workers or the environment, which is a perfectly reasonable concern," he says. "The environment department looked at that differently, as was their prerogative and their right, and decided that we had not satisfactorily met our deadline." According to NMED, the lab submitted data accumulated from the boreholes on April 19 of this year and is now in compliance with the work plan. Since December, there have been no additional enforcement actions against the lab.
"The effects of the contaminants leaching into the soil and heading toward the regional aquifer are what concern us about these material disposal areas," says Scott Kovac, the operations and research director for Nuclear Watch New Mexico, an organization that monitors nuclear weapons complex facilities. Kovac says chromium, a water-soluble corrosion inhibitor dumped into a canyon between the ’50s and the ’70s, was recently detected 700 to 900 feet below the lab. "I think it's interesting that they stopped dumping it in the ’70s, and here it is 30 years later. It kind of gives you a timeline of how long it takes to get there." Kovac says contaminants will continue to move toward the aquifer until the source is removed, adding that with some of the sources, removal will be impossible.
While the contaminants at MDA C have been detected at least 600 feet below the ground, the regional aquifer that area residents get drinking water from lies approximately 1,000 feet below. That's according to James Bearzi, chief of NMED's hazardous waste bureau, who says potential effects on the groundwater and surrounding areas are unknown.
Aside from scores of questions related to MDA C and other sites like it, the big question remaining is whether the lab will accomplish cleanup by 2015. Rickman says the laboratory plans to have all consent order requirements completed by the deadline. Meanwhile, Bearzi says "no."
"LANL has lost too much time fighting with the state to get done on time," he says, adding that the lab has made overly optimistic assumptions about carrying out the cleanup and hasn't accounted for certain tasks. "LANL hadn’t really planned to do the kind of groundwater investigations and monitoring being required by the state, nor that this work would need to be well underway before the state can select cleanup solutions. Perhaps the biggest barrier, however, is LANL’s failure to account for the time it will take to substantively and meaningfully involve the public in the cleanup process."
As for other waste at Los Alamos, Rickman says last year the lab shipped more waste to WIPP (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground storage facility for radioactive waste) than in any previous year. He says LANL has some 40,000 more drums of waste waiting to be shipped to WIPP. "We do have a number of significant environmental challenges that we will need to deal with to meet our cleanup goals." Rickman adds that environmental stewardship is a core value of the lab and a responsibility it takes seriously.
Since receiving the lab's investigation report on MDA C, the Environment Department expects research into the site to be completed some time this year. They say once the nature and extent of the contamination is known, cleanup decisions will be made. And for now it seems likely that the contents of MDA C will be shipped to a permitted hazardous waste landfill in Utah and placed back in the ground from whence it came.