Alibi V.16 No.27 • July 5-11, 2007 


As the River Flows

Traces of radioactivity stemming from LANL have been found in the Rio Grande. Should Albuquerqueans worry?

Radioactive materials anywhere near a water source seems like a bad thing, especially when that source will be coming out of your tap next year. Take the case of the Rio Grande and radioactive materials bleeding into the river from near Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL). Don’t forget, Albuquerque will be switching from the aquifer to the Rio Grande as its primary source of water [Feature, “Parched?” May 31-June 6, 2007].

Five years ago The Radioactivist Campaign and Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, along with other regional groups, surveyed an area around the laboratory to find out if any LANL waste was getting into the Rio Grande. What they found--at low levels--was radioactive Cesium-137, flowing from a spring into a creek that drains into the river. That was the first time anyone detected radioactivity in the river originating from the lab. Even these low levels are a warning, says John Stomp, water resources manager for the Albuquerque Bernalillo Water Utility Authority and the director of the city's Drinking Water Project, which will transition the city to river water starting next summer.

"We're monitoring Albuquerque, and we haven't seen any radioactive material in the water ... but the stuff travels with sediment," he says. While so far nothing has been found in the water itself, the low levels were found in Rio Grande sediment, where it seems to stick like glue. Lab officials did not return the Alibi's calls come press time.

It's not the first time anyone's heard of the Rio Grande being contaminated. A 2005 report found fecal coliform, bacterial micro-organisms that live in the intestines of animals [Newscity, “You Gonna Drink That?" Dec. 1-7, 2005]. It was especially bad near Albuquerque, where the main source of waste is birds, followed closely by humans and canines. The study was conducted over two years and paid for by the New Mexico Environment Department, Bernalillo County and the Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District.

Nor is it the first time LANL’s been accused of contaminating a body of water. Scott Kovac, operations and research director for Nuclear Watch New Mexico, says chromium was first detected in the aquifer under Los Alamos in December 2005 after 20 years of dumping effluent into the canyon [Newscity, “Waste Pit Blitz,” June 14-20, 2007]. “They stopped dumping it in the ’70s, and so here it is, 30 years later, and now it’s showing up,” he says.

Stomp assures the radioactive contaminants will be removed before they reach Albuquerque faucets. "We're tracking it. We have to be concerned about good treatment of the water," he says. "When the sediment gets to the treatment plant, it gets removed there."

So in the short term, at least, there won't be any four-eyed fish or two-headed snakes, genetically transmogrified from radioactivity. While such a scenario is purely a frame stolen from old ’50s mutation-horror style movies like Tarantula or The Blob, the more likely result of higher levels would be illnesses of various kinds in humans and animals.

While it's not time to worry yet, says Stomp, these low levels found in river sediment serve as an early warning for concerned citizens and government agencies to take preventive action in protecting and restoring the Rio Grande.