Citizen Action, a local government watchdog group, has for years endured courtroom battles and crawled over roadblocks in its search for proof that Sandia National Laboratories is in fact endangering the state's soil and groundwater supply with its controversial Mixed Waste Landfill.
The 2.6-acre plot of land in Southeast Albuquerque has played host to nearly 13 million gallons of toxic nuclear reactor material since its inception 40 years ago. However, by obtaining a series of new documents through the Freedom of Information Act, the group has made an even more startling discovery—the existence of “yard holes” on the lab's property used to house waste from experiments with nuclear and radioactive materials.
The documents, released to Citizen Action in response to a lawsuit filed against the Department of Energy (DOE) in February for information relating to the storage of nuclear materials on Sandia Labs property, revealed the existence of at least 19 “yard holes.”
According to the documents, the 20-foot deep holes exist at various locations in the area where high-level nuclear waste is stored. A large number of those holes are now located directly under a heavily populated facility at the labs.
Sue Dayton, director of Citizen Action, a coalition of 14 environmental and anti-nuclear organizations opposed to the labs allowing toxic materials to be stored so close to Abuquerque, called the information "shocking."
"Regardless of how safe the government claims this program is or how secure the holes are, the fact remains that there is toxic waste buried in the ground. How can that bring anything but negative consequences?"
Sandia officials, however, claim that every precautionary measure has been taken to ensure that the waste materials in the yard holes are safely kept away from populated areas and not able to seep into the city's underground water supply.
In a written statement in response to the release of the documents to Citizen Action, Sandia officials claim that every one of the yard holes are lined with steel and concrete to provide a barrier between the toxic waste and the earth. The statement also emphasizes that the holes are used solely as temporary storage for the deadly material that is a byproduct of nuclear weapons research.
"Some holes have contained materials for several years, but ultimately those materials will be moved offsite," according to the statement. "They pose absolutely no threat to humans."
Will Keener, a spokesman for Sandia, said the program, up and running since the early '90s, calls for all the high-level waste to be shipped to other Department of Energy sites within the next seven to eight years.
"This kind of material often can't be moved quickly because there is nowhere to send it," Keener said. "We'd like the process to move faster, but these things take time."
But that time is something many groups in Albuquerque would rather not give the Department of Energy. Dayton said it is common for the government to disregard any sense of public urgency. She says that attitude is not acceptable, especially when you're dealing with toxic material that could, under the wrong circumstances, easily put the entire population of Albuquerque at a serious health risk.
"(The government) is always looking 10 years down the road, but we want action now," she said.
Dayton is not alone in her concerns about the level of toxins housed at the Mixed Waste Landfill. The landfill was created decades ago as an easy solution to getting rid of leftover nuclear material from the Cold War and other less toxic refuse.
In September 2003, a group of 25 prominent Albuquerque real estate agents banded together and sent a letter to Gov. Bill Richardson urging him to stop programs that house toxic waste at Sandia Labs. The letter said the existence of the Mixed Waste Landfill is enough to impede future growth and development in the southern part of Albuquerque and should be cleaned up for the "health and safety of our community."
Those fears are hardly farfetched, considering some minor incidents in the past.
John Gould, the DOE's Environmental Restoration Program Manager, said in the mid-'90s an undisclosed amount of radioactive waste slipped through Sandia Lab's fingers and seeped 30 feet down into the ground and 100 feet outside the lab's fences. However, he said that was an isolated incident and programs such as the one governing the yard holes are safe and pose no threat to people or the environment.
"We're not opposed to cleaning these projects up and stopping them, that's what we do," Gould said, adding that the DOE has already shut down four landfills in the area that were used to house nuclear waste, because they posed a threat to public safety. "However these programs are not causing a problem."
Nevertheless, with the discovery of the yard hole program, Dayton said many state officials that were unaware of its existence until the documents were made public will have yet another environmental clean-up to monitor
And just because the toxic materials sitting in the ground at Sandia aren't causing a problem now doesn't mean that will always be the case, she said. The documents Dayton received about the yard hole program provide evidence that the programs have an uncertain future.
Sandia officials admit that while dumping the waste into the ground has been a quick fix, eventually the storage capacity will be reached. The documents also outline the labs' fears about the possibility of the materials leaking and the containers corroding over time.
However, the New Mexico Environment Department, the regulatory agency responsible for overseeing much of the radioactive waste involved in the programs, doesn't appear ready or willing to make changes any time soon.
Jon Goldstein, a spokesman for the department, said the organization has been involved with the programs for several years and is currently researching their effectiveness and any possible dangers involved in them.
Eric Nuttall, a professor of chemical and nuclear engineering at UNM and a member of an independent review committee formed several years ago to research the safety of storing high-level waste at Sandia Labs, said the situation boils down to cost vs. risk.
He said while the planning behind programs such as the yard holes and the Mixed Waste Landfill is still being questioned, clean-up needs to be a priority.
"Doing that will require a substantial amount of money, which is what is making the government reluctant," he said. "But how many more Iraqs or 9-11s are we going to face that are going to divert money away from this issue? Now is the time for looking at cleaning these things up."
Until then, Dayton and Citizen Action remain committed to ridding the state's ground of the waste material, one battle at a time. The group recently organized a meeting with federal officials to discuss the future of the waste storage programs and has several more requests for information regarding the waste facilities pending through the Freedom of Information Act.
"Our government is downplaying the risk involved with the waste that is sitting out there," Dayton said, vowing not to stop her search until Albuquerque is no longer a dumping ground for the toxic materials. "We want the people responsible to admit to the public that there are dangers involved in the programs they are involved in and deal with them in a responsible manner."