Geologist points to holes in the thinking—and the landscape—around waste burial in Southern New Mexico
For years, Richard Hayes Phillips has carried in his mind awful visions of what it would be like to see the Pecos River contaminated with radioactive material. "People fish there, and it flows into the Rio Grande at Amistad Reservoir, which is actually the Spanish word for 'friendship,' ” he says.
He's envisioning a day when the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant—the waste burial ground 26 miles east of Carlsbad—breaches. Above WIPP are cavernous groundwater aquifers. Below it are brine reservoirs so pressurized that the saltwater gushes to the land's surface every time they’re punctured by drillers, Phillips says. And underneath it all, oil and gas fields wait to be harvested. A thousand drill holes pepper the landscape. "All the geologic mechanisms necessary for a catastrophic breach are there," he says.
Imagine a drill disturbing any part of the WIPP site, the contamination seeping into those groundwater aquifers, maybe forced by pressurized brine pockets beneath. Here's the point of contention: Sandia Labs says those aquifers are confined by impermeable rocks above and below. Phillips, a geologist, says a report he submitted in March proves those aquifers respond to heavy rainfall, which means they aren’t isolated and could carry contaminated water rapidly to the environment. "The WIPP site is not suitable for long-term waste isolation," he says. Putting it there was a mistake, he adds, and the area should have never been certified for radioactive waste disposal.
Since he was a visiting student at the University of New Mexico 30 years ago, Phillips has been studying WIPP. In 1979, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, one of the first reports planning for WIPP, was released, and Phillips went to the Sandia Labs news conference to pick up a copy. "I spent six weeks reading the whole thing and writing a critique," he says.
The WIPP site was opened in March 1999. It can hold up to 6.2 million cubic feet of radioactive waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that waste consists primarily of "contaminated debris from dismantling atomic weapons and cleaning up processing facilities." Every five years, the site undergoes recertification by the EPA. On Tuesday, June 30, Phillips flew out from New York to speak at the public hearing portion of that recertification process.
Earlier this year, he'd waded through 8,000 data points: rainfall data from the state climatologist, water level measurements of the WIPP test wells from Sandia Labs, the annual environment report. His travel expenses were covered by Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping. The organization also offered him a modest sum to complete his report, though he’s quick to point out he works entirely independently and goes where the data takes him.
Rainwater, he says, is reaching the Culebra and Magenta dolomites (aquifers near WIPP) from the outside. "Simply stated, there is no room for more water," he writes in his report. When rainwater finds its way to Culebra and Magenta, they have to push old water out to make room. “They must discharge an equal amount of groundwater somewhere else." Every time there's a major rainstorm, he says, there's a pulse and the water is pushed farther along a series of subterranean passages.
The word is "karst." It describes a landscape riddled with channels. If rainwater is reaching those aquifers, it's flowing through holes in the rock, dissolving and enlarging them as it travels, Phillips says. He first mentioned that karst exists near the site intended for WIPP in a 1979 testimony. Karst regions, he says, are considered terrible places to bury waste. The Mescalero Plain, where WIPP sits, is among the largest of such regions in the world, Phillips writes in his report.
Proponents of WIPP maintain that the area is solid and contained. WIPP was certified based on the model that the Culebra is isolated, not surrounded by porous karst, he writes.
"Everyone knows the Pecos River Valley is shot through with sinkholes and disappearing streams and underground caverns, all the way from Santa Rosa into Carlsbad," Phillips says. "And yet they [Sandia] basically claim to have found this little island, this little 16-square-mile site where there is no karst."
Rick Beauheim is a hydrologist for Sandia Labs who researches the WIPP site. He agreed to speak with the Alibi, but 30 minutes before his scheduled interview, a representative from Sandia called to cancel and added he couldn't say why.
Beauheim gave a presentation at the public recertification hearing. He said there was no way the aquifers are recharged from water on the surface, which means radioactive waste isn’t likely to quickly travel to the environment if a WIPP breach took place.
First of all, he said, it's flawed to take rainfall measurements from any one location and try to correlate it to wells in other areas. In Southern New Mexico, rain showers are often small and impact only a few square miles. Further, he said, water levels in wells respond to barometric pressure. "When a front comes through, barometric pressure goes up or down, and your water level responds to that as well." It can cause a four- or five-inch change in water level "that has nothing to do with anything except barometric pressure."
Sandia takes hourly pressure readings on all of the Culebra wells and most of the Magenta wells as well, he added. That makes it much easier to tell if there is correlation between the wells and rainfall, he said. "It's not water that's moving. It's simply pressure that's moving through there."
This denial and the many others he encounters are the result of bad science, Phillips says. "I never believed it was a genuine site characterization," he says. "I still believe they picked the site and then proceeded to justify it. It's outcome-driven science."
Still, Phillips says, maybe this time someone will hear his plea. "I would hope that there is someone in the EPA whose goal is public service, who entered the EPA in order to protect the environment and who will look at this and understand that grievous mistake has been made," he says.
The EPA has six months to decide whether to recertify WIPP. According to the agency, recertification is not a chance to re-evaluate the initial decision to open the site or make significant design and program changes. Instead, recertification is when the agency double checks to ensure everything is in compliance with standards and incorporates new information about WIPP that may have been uncovered in the previous five years.
Waste disposal should be halted, Phillips says, and everyone should sit down to figure out what to do next. "Should they dig it up? I don't know. Is it more hazardous to dig it up than to leave it in place? And where would they put it?" Phillips asks. Sandia Labs should stop shipments, take a step back and re-evaluate the situation, he says. "It's a life-and-death matter. It's never too late to admit a mistake."
For the full text of Phillips’ report and its appendices, go to www.witnesstoacrime.com.