Coming Of Age

Some Albuquerque Residents Say The Mixed Waste Landfill Is A Threat To Our Very Existence. But Officials At Sandia National Labs Contend It'S Better To Leave Bad Enough Alone.

Joseph Crumb
25 min read
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Suppose there were a rattlesnake in your driveway. What would you do?

You'd probably want to keep an eye on it. You might even want to call someone to take it away, although that would cost you. Or you might decide the snake looks pretty old and has probably lost its fangs; accordingly, maybe the safest—and cheapest—thing would be to just leave it alone.

In this case the snake is the Sandia National Laboratories' Mixed Waste Landfill and the metaphor belongs to Dr. Eric Nuttall, one of several authors of a 2001 scientific peer review of the 2.6-acre, unlined landfill, where radioactive and hazardous wastes from Sandia's nuclear weapons research program were dumped from March 1959 until December 1988.

I had called Dr. Nuttall, a professor of chemical and nuclear engineering at UNM, to ask about isotopes, half-lives, tritium, uranium and cobalt. We ended up talking about snakes.

“If you had some potential danger, say a rattlesnake, in your driveway, you'd want to keep an eye on it.” said Nuttall, who advocates the excavation of the landfill, and sooner rather than later. “You might choose to move it from your driveway. The debate is if you just sit there and let the snake sit in the driveway it doesn't cost you anything.”

Why resort to metaphors? Well, for one thing, the roll call of radio-nuclides is daunting: Uranium 238 and 235, plutonium, tritium (a radioactive hydrogen molecule), cesium, strontium, americium, radium, carbon, iodine, cobalt, lead, beryllium (a contaminant responsible for significant radiation poisoning of workers at the now-closed Rocky Flats, CO, nuclear weapons manufacturing facility), thorium, polonium, antimony, zirconium, iridium, sodium, lithium, tantalum, cadmium, selenium, molybdenum, samarium, promethium, europium, silver, nickel, technetium, barium, gadolinium, germanium, manganese, iron, chromium, cerium, potassium, niobium, europium, deuterium, and (Superman, beware) krypton.

Hazardous wastes include radioactive acids and solvents, as well as organic compounds such as carbon tetrachloride and trichloroethylene (TCE), a contaminant that previously had reached the groundwater from Sandia's Chemical Waste Landfill. Sandia has since excavated that landfill and cleaned it up. The chemical waste site will be capped once the New Mexico Environment Department makes a final determination on the make-up of the cover.

Albuquerque's aquifer resides 460 feet below the surface of the Mixed Waste Landfill, which is located on Kirtland Air Force Base, just five miles southeast of Albuquerque International Sunport.

Much of the radioactive waste entombed there was containerized, in particular, the much-feared isotope, cobalt-60. Liquid wastes, for the most part, were solidified before being deposited, according to Sandia. And although a complete record of the volumes and types of wastes buried does not exist, Dick Fate, Deputy Project Manager for the Environmental Restoration Project at Sandia Labs, insists that the landfill's contents are well enough characterized to make a decision on what to do about the site.

Sandia's proposal is to cover the landfill with a vegetative cap to protect the site from water and wind erosion and continue to monitor the groundwater to track any migration of contaminants. Sandia officials believe New Mexico's arid climate and the nearly 500 feet of soil between the landfill and the city's aquifer make it highly unlikely that contaminants could ever reach the groundwater. Sandia's scientists reason that it's safer left buried, partly because dirt is a good shield against radioactivity. “If something were to leak, it would take a long, long time to get through that 500 feet,” Fate said, “and that would give you time to do something about it.”

Fate described radioactivity as “a gut-level issue.”

“It's spooky,” he said. “You can't see it. People are afraid of it. Regardless, it does obey physics. It is predictable and we can deal with it. It's just a small landfill. It's doing what it's supposed to be doing. And we're going to help it stay that way.”

Nuttall said the same thing is happening in the Mixed Waste Landfill with its radioactive waste that occurred with the leakage from the Chemical Waste Landfill. “Gravity is always working. It's moving toward the groundwater. Sooner or later it's going to get through. If someone says it's never going to get there, they're wrong.”

The location of the site is troublesome not only because it sits atop the city's drinking water source, but it also resides adjacent to Mesa del Sol, a massive, planned residential development. An environmental education park, La Semilla, is also slated for nearby.

“Nuttall wondered: “If you were to start over today, would you put that mixed waste landfill in the middle of Albuquerque?”

At Odds With State Regulators

In July, the New Mexico Environmental Department signaled a get-tough attitude towards the Department of Energy's New Mexico facilities by issuing three compliance orders to Sandia for 27 hazardous waste permit violations uncovered during a February 2003 inspection, including failure to segregate incompatible waste, failure to maintain emergency decontamination equipment, and failure to properly train personnel on waste characterization. The violations carry a potential fine of nearly $3.2 million. None, however, were related to the Mixed Waste Landfill.

Because the landfill contains hazardous as well as radioactive wastes, New Mexico regulators have jurisdiction over how the hazardous and mixed materials are stored. Sandia applied for a renewal of its Resource Conservation and Recovery Act permit in 2002 and the NMED plans to modify the permit by requiring Sandia to undertake “corrective measures” for future oversight of the landfill.

Last month the state environment department announced it will hold a public hearing on Sandia's Corrective Measures Study of the landfill on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2004, at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Center, 2500 Carlisle NE in Albuquerque. The hearing is expected to last more than one day and is open to the public.

The Corrective Measures Study has been “deemed complete” by the NMED and a draft permit has been proposed. NMED spokesman Jon Goldstein insists that the agency has not issued a preliminary approval of Sandia's plan, but the draft permit lists the solution the NMED is leaning towards: a vegetative soil cover along with a “bio-intrusion” barrier to keep burrowing animals from getting into the landfill and tracking contaminants.

Goldstein said that the various independent studies of the landfill are already part of the NMED record and the hearing will provide an opportunity for the agency to gather additional technical and nontechnical testimony before any final decision is made. Those wishing to present technical testimony must file a written notice of intent to do so with the NMED's Hazardous Waste Bureau by Nov. 1.

“The purpose of the hearing is to give people a chance to present testimony so we can then make the best decision,” Goldstein said.

Worker safety, a chief concern in Sandia's Corrective Measures Study, will be one issue to consider, as will questions over the types and amounts of waste deposited there. Disputed accounts of how much uncontainerized liquid waste went into the Mixed Waste Landfill will also be at issue. The final decision will be made by state Environmental Secretary Ron Curry. There is no deadline set for the decision on renewal of Sandia's hazardous waste permit.

I asked William Moats, group manager for the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Bureau, why tritium was singled out in Sandia's report as the “primary contaminant of concern” when there were a host of other radio-nuclides in the reported inventory of wastes.

“Most of the radio-nuclides are metals and so they behave like metals,” Moats said. “Most of them are fairly immobile. Tritium is the exception. It can migrate both in a liquid phase or a vapor phase, essentially as water.”

Tritium has migrated some 130 to 140 feet below the surface. However, tritium has a short half-life of 12.3 years, meaning that half of its volume will be rendered harmless in that time. Could it ever make it to the aquifer?

“We haven't found any definitive evidence of groundwater contamination,” Moats said.

“Trust Us”

W. Paul Robinson, research director for the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, points out that Sandia is the largest employer in the state in terms of number of employees, including contractors.

Robinson was commissioned by the group local watchdog group Citizen Action to do a study of the financial implications of capping the Mixed Waste Landfill, then maintaining the site while conducting tests to monitor the contaminants far into the future under a “long-term stewardship” scenario. The report, “Is ’Trust Us, We're the Government' really a guarantee? A Review of Assurance Options for Long-Term Stewardship at the Mixed Waste Landfill” is available on Citizen Action's website,

“New Mexico functions as a ’company' town for the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense,” Robinson said. And he adds that in the past no sacrifice has been too great for New Mexicans to undertake to benefit the national labs.

But how much do residents benefit from the relationship? While the state is the third highest in the nation in federal money per capita received, New Mexico is in the bottom five in per capita income. The implication is that most citizens here reap little benefit from the federal largesse.

Robinson doesn't seem to trust that the federal labs or even the NMED have the best interests of the state at heart in the controversy over Mixed Waste Landfill oversight. He believes that Sandia's risk assessment is too narrow in scope, focusing almost solely on tritium as a contamination threat. He doesn't trust that Sandia has been upfront with the public as to what has been deposited into the “classified” portion of the landfill. He believes Sandia has done a poor inventory in terms of what kinds and how much nuclear waste was dumped there. It has never been adequately characterized, he said.

For example, “we don't know what the risks are when (the inventory) says ’miscellaneous fission products,'” Robinson said, adding neither the state nor federal government have addressed the issue of the future restriction of nearby land use, if the plan to leave the waste buried carries the day. Sandia may have overestimated the cost of excavation and cleanup in order to eliminate that option as a viable solution to the dump, he said. In a 100 years who knows who will own or control the site, especially when realtors are selling homes in Mesa del Sol, home to an estimated 100,000 new residents? Or, a more immediate question is: Can Albuquerque trust Congress to budget enough money to keep monitoring the landfill that far into the future?

And while Robinson hopes the state environment department will use the public hearing process to study the landfill more carefully and make an appropriate decision, he isn't sure that the agency has even read the independent scientific studies of the landfill.

“I don't think the technical people at the state are particularly inquisitive,” Robinson said. “They haven't engaged in a technical dialogue over the Mixed Waste Landfill.” As far as the DOE goes, Robinson is concerned that the agency's current policy of “accelerated clean-up” means, in certain cases, “accelerated decision-making.”

Finally, Robinson sees a fundamental contradiction in the federal government's view that the landfill is too dangerous to excavate but the contaminants are safe if left buried. “Here it's too hazardous for the workers, but not for the environment. It is an interesting nonsequitur. They're trying to minimize the cost and write the site off as cleaned up.”

Marla Painter lives in Mountain View, about eight miles away from the site. She is most concerned about plutonium, a very small amount of which is very lethal. Plutonium can travel by air, but her chief worry is that it will reach the groundwater beneath the dump. And she suspects that the classified portion of the landfill contains plutonium.

Painter lived in Nevada for 23 years. During that time she advocated for the cleanup of weapons facilities around the country. “I've learned a lot about how the DOE operates. They're like any other agency. They're given a certain amount of money in their budget. Since the Bush administration, that amount for cleanup has gone down every year.”

Painter, who has been involved with Citizen Action “off and on” since moving to Albuquerque six years ago, said the problem is not that the site needs to be cleaned up this year, but that a commitment must be made to clean it up in the future.

“The fear is not based on paranoia,” Painter said. “It's based on a very concrete understanding of how the DOE operates.” She believes that leaving the waste there for a future generation to worry about is irresponsible. “I just think it's so stupid to keep it in the ground when it's so relatively easy to dig it up, sort it out and put it into containers. What is standing in the way of that is money.”

Corrective Measures

Sandia's Corrective Measures Study includes a brief summary of the site's operational history and a description of the two distinct disposal areas. In the two-acre unclassified section, waste was disposed of in a series of parallel (unlined) trenches, 15 to 25 feet wide, 150 to 180 feet long and 15 to 20 feet deep. Once filled with waste, trenches were capped with the original soil, which had been stockpiled. In the classified area, waste was deposited in a series of vertical cylindrical pits. Early pits were three to five feet in diameter and 15 feet deep. Later pits were 10 feet in diameter and 25 feet deep. The classified section contains the waste that presents the greatest worker safety and environmental concerns: cobalt-60, cesium-137, tritium, radium-226, cesium-137, strontium-90, plutonium, thorium and depleted uranium.

The pits and trenches contain “routine operational and miscellaneous decontamination waste” including gloves, paper, mop heads, brushes, rags, tape, wire, metal and polyvinyl chloride piping, cables, disposable lab coats, shoe covers, particulate air filters, tubing, beakers, pH meters, screws, bolts, saw blades, petri dishes, scouring pads, glass, metal and rubber scrap and wooden shipping crates and pallets, and used-up or obsolete experimental equipment.

The study reviews the procedures and costs of a wide variety of solutions, including “NFA” (no further action) with “ICs” (institutional controls). Under this approach the site would be kept fenced off with warning signs and security patrols while monitoring tests of the soil and groundwater are conducted periodically. One extravagant solution—Stabilization/In Situ Treatment—would use electric cables generating temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees Celsius to convert soil and wastes to a crystalline mass, basically encasing the landfill in glass in order to prevent the migration of contaminants.

Various excavation scenarios were reviewed with recovered wastes to be sorted and stored in either an on-site or off-site facility. These options included partial excavation (the classified section only) and future excavation of the entire landfill at a time when some of the more dangerous isotopes, such as cobalt-60 with its halflife of 54 years, have degraded.

The corrective measures were evaluated according to four objectives: to minimize exposure to site workers, the public and wildlife; to limit the migration of contaminants to the groundwater; to minimize biological intrusion by plants or animals into the buried waste that could release contaminants; and to prevent or limit human intrusion into the buried waste over the long term. No prospective solution was eliminated on the basis of cost alone, according to the report. The estimated costs of excavation and storage options were by far the most expensive, with partial excavation (the classified section only) to run between $104 million and $140 million. Future excavation (when the materials could be handled more safely) would cost approximately $235 million. It could cost up to $700 million for near-term excavation and off-site storage. Capping it with a vegetative soil cover would cost an estimated $1.9 million.

Four corrective measures were selected for further analysis. Missing from the list was an alternative plan suggested in a review of the Draft Corrective Measures Study conducted by an independent panel of scientists in late 2002. The WERC report, commissioned by the DOE, recommended that Sandia include for further analysis the option of temporarily capping the site pending future excavation.

The final four alternatives selected by Sandia were: No further action with institutional controls, vegetative soil cover, vegetative soil cover with bio-intrusion barrier, and future excavation.

Citizen Action

Citizen Action was formed six years ago by disgruntled members of Sandia's Citizen Advisory Board. The group's mission is to advocate for the cleanup of Albuquerque's nuclear waste dump.

In April of 2000 Citizen Action went to court to seek more information under the Freedom of Information Act. Documents and internal memos released contradicted Sandia Lab's public statements on the contents of the Mixed Waste Landfill and have fueled the group's skepticism regarding Sandia's knowledge of the contents and amounts of waste in the landfill.

For example, a federal 1987 Environmental Restoration information sheet revealed an estimated 720,000 cubic feet of waste buried at the site. But another document put the figure at 50,000 cubic feet. Sandia's official estimate of the amount of radioactive waste is 100,000 cubic feet. FOIA documents also indicate there were 19.4 million gallons of nuclear reactor coolant water dumped near the site. Sandia has acknowledged that more than 200,000 gallons of reactor coolant water was dumped in the landfill in 1967, but the possibility that millions more gallons were introduced in close proximity raised concerns.

As a result, Citizen Action commissioned independent scientific reviews by Mark Baskaran, of Wayne State University, in July 2000, by Marvin Resnikoff, of Radioactive Waste Management Associates, in August 2001, and by Tom Hakonson, of Environmental Evaluation Services, in February 2002.

A groundwater sample analyzed by Baskaran indicated the aquifer may have already been tainted by traces of non-natural sources of uranium. Baskaran also warned about possible migration of radionuclides in a gaseous phase, disturbance of the site by plants and burrowing animals and the subsequent migration of contaminants. Soil erosion could lead to exposure of contaminants to wind and rainfall. Other concerns included prairie dogs, earthquakes and subsidence (already occurring in the Northeast Heights due to drawdown of the aquifer), any of which could create pathways for contaminants to reach the groundwater.

Co-founder Susan Dayton estimated that since June, Citizen Action has held some 30 community meetings to inform the public about the Mixed Waste Landfill and to urge Albuquerque residents to testify at the NMED's Dec. 2 public hearing on Sandia's hazardous waste permit renewal.

“We're talking to as many people who will listen to us,” said Citizen Action presenter Carol Boss at an Aug. 23 gathering of about 20 at Bound To Be Read bookstore in the Northeast Heights. “A whole lot of people don't even know that this landfill exists, or they know very little about it,” she said.

Citizen Action aims to put the landfill into a social context by being blunt about why New Mexico has nuclear waste at its Sandia and Los Alamos facilities: nuclear waste comes from nuclear weapons research.

Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War the U.S. is spending 50 percent more money on nuclear weapons research and development than average during the Cold War, an amount equal to the peak of Cold War weapons spending during President Ronald Reagan's military buildup in 1985. New prospective weapons include “mini-nukes” and the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a.k.a. the “bunker-buster,” designed to penetrate deep into the ground and destroy buried targets, such as stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons.

Sandia's nuclear weapons budget has jumped 50 percent in the past four years, and approximately 70 percent of the DOE's total spending in New Mexico would go to nuclear weapons programs, according to Citizen Action's review of fiscal year 2005 Congressional budget requests.

However, only 4 percent of the requested $2.57 billion for the New Mexico labs' budgets will be spent on cleanup of waste sites. Just 2 percent of Sandia's budget is being spent on renewable energy technology and no renewable energy research is taking place at Los Alamos, according to Citizen Action.

For the most part, Boss and Dayton preached to the converted, although two or three newcomers were on hand. Among the audience was Sandia's Dick Fate, taking notes.

Dayton acknowledged that Sandia has done a good job of cleaning up its waste sites, of which there are close to 200.

Why, then, is Sandia resisting the cleanup of this site? “We believe this is more a policy decision than a risk decision,” Dayton said. “There's a problem: this would set a precedent (for DOE sites across the country). Also, it'll cost some money.”

Up Close and Personal

Dick Fate invited me to accompany him on a drive out to the landfill. As we traveled along Wyoming on Kirtland Air Force Base, Fate asked me to recall the mindset of the '50s and '60s. It used to be, when you had to change the oil in your car, that you'd just drive out onto the mesa and pull the plug.

“You wouldn't think of doing that nowadays,” he said. Sandia, which began operating in 1949 as a division of Los Alamos, “had to deal with waste disposal techniques of the '50s and '60s and '70s.”

Since then, out of its five landfills, Sandia has cleaned up four of them. The Chemical Waste Landfill cleanup cost between $30 and $40 million. “It was expensive, but it was the right thing to do,” Fate said.

The Radioactive Waste Landfill, the smaller predecessor of the Mixed Waste Landfill, contained many of the same contaminants. A third landfill, the Classified Waste Landfill has been dug up. It contained some classified documents, but mostly test parts, thousands of which are being demilitarized. Tijeras Arroyo ran nearby the classified and chemical waste dumps, increasing the probability of catastrophic distribution of wastes in the event of a flood and fueling the decision to excavate.

Sandia doesn't hide from its responsibility to clean up its sites, Fate said, taking regulators to each site, giving them an overview of its history, along with Sandia's proposed solution. “We are way, way ahead of most of the sites in the DOE system. We're doing it voluntarily. We're not fighting. We don't turn them into legal problems. ”

But Fate insisted the Mixed Waste Landfill is different than the others. For one thing, it rests some two miles from Tijeras Arroyo, protecting it from the prospect of a 500-year flood. Its contaminants, other than tritium, have not been mobile. Scientists there have studied the site since 1991, and will continue to monitor it. There are a half-dozen monitoring wells around the site. One well was dug at the edge of the notorious Trench D, to try and find out what happened with all that reactor water that was dumped in 1967. A borehole was dug at an angle underneath the classified section to gather continuous soil samples—an expensive precaution to determine possible migration of contaminants.

The level of the tritium contamination in the air is one/one-millionth of the federal regulatory limit. Fate noted that when an air monitor was moved inside the classified section the amount of tritium doubled, to two/one millionths of the limit.

“Tritium is a very mobile contaminant.” Fate said. But its half-life of 12.3 years means it will vanish eventually. “It's as bad now as it's going to be and it's just getting better over time,” he said.

One test, an “instantaneous profile test,” involved flooding a nearby uncontaminated block of land of the same soil makeup as the Mixed Waste Landfill. The test showed that when flooded, the water goes down about three feet, and then comes back up.

Meanwhile, fears abound about plutonium. “Plutonium isn't an element that Sandia typically worked with,” Fate said. Uranium, which modeled plutonium's physical characteristics, was usually used instead. “We know there was plutonium. Very small amounts—a tenth of an ounce.”

The “classified” section of the landfill is not “hiding things,” Fate insisted. Things were classified because of their shapes and uses, not because of the materials themselves.

Finally, Fate said there is no good reason to dig up the contaminants, moving them, exposing them to air—and the site workers to the contaminants—because the landfill is, in short, “well-behaved.”

Fate said this with a tone of fortuitous surprise, as if the Mixed Waste Landfill were human. As if it were perhaps an adolescent boy who, though lacking in discipline and structure earlier in childhood, still managed somehow to grow up learning respect, decency and proper boundaries. A boy who was growing up well-behaved against all odds.

Still, Fate admitted the Mixed Waste Landfill is controversial. I mentioned the manmade uranium traces found by Baskaran in a water sample. He explained Sandia has taken thousands of samples and any given one can get, well, contaminated. Perhaps a lab flub-up. There have been no repeating instances that would warrant a firm scientific conclusion, he said. It was a false positive. I mention earthquakes, 500-year floods, and invasion of ants that can burrow 25-feet into the ground. If that ant were as hardy and robust as, say, a New York City cockroach, wouldn't it lug radioactivity all around?

Fate granted the bizarre has its possibilities. “You could get a meteor to hit right here. It's a question of risk.”

I asked about near-term excavation. Sandia did look at it. It would cost an estimated $600 million. Future excavation? About $106 million, Fate said. The on-site facility “would be huge.”

“When you have a good solution for $5 or $6 million compared to a riskier one for $100 to $600 million, I think you have to look at that,” Fate said.

Mixed hazardous and radioactive waste “is an order of magnitude more expensive to clean up,” Fate said. From his Dodge Caravan we watch a stiff breeze wave the desert plants to and fro. “Now if you brought all this stuff to the surface, the same little wind you have this afternoon, you could certainly make a problem where one didn't exist,” he said.

The safety issues arise “once you start to characterize the stuff and break open the drums and break open the concrete,” Fate said. Some contaminants, like Radium-226, Beryllium-7, radioactive lithium, Cobalt-60 and Cesium-137 cannot be stored legally. “How smart is that—to pull these wastes to the surface and then you can't get rid of them?” Fate said.

Again Fate spoke of the four landfills Sandia had already excavated. “And we're very concerned that opening this one would be a safety problem for us. We want it to go back to nature so that it will heal itself.”

But what if it doesn't? What if one day after the adolescent's well-behaved teen years have slipped away, he suddenly shows up on the front stoop in the middle of the night, stumbling drunk? An hour later the police knock at the door: “Your son has got your car wrapped around a utility pole.” Around dawn a crew from the power company turns up, working to restore electricity to the neighborhood.

I called Eric Nuttall back. I'd become convinced future excavation was the way to go. I caught him in his office at UNM, alternately counseling walk-in students and bantering with me. “What's wrong with sooner than later,” he asked. Nuttall talked about water pipelines that have ruptured before on Sandia's site, leaking millions of gallons.

“They do need to take a hard and serious look at excavation. That's been broached internally and it's been quashed. And I suspect because of economic reasons. It's expensive. It's a risk-cost issue. I don't think the DOE perceives the imminent danger will happen in this budget cycle.”

Future excavation is not necessarily less dangerous, Nuttall said. The containers holding some waste may decay, allowing contaminants with longer half-lives to migrate and rendering the site even more dangerous. “It will not heal itself,” Nuttall said. “It will not be garden soil and you will have to monitor it indefinitely,”

Nuttall said the technology existed to excavate safely. Precision instruments can tell workers what element they've encountered and it can be done from a distance. As he spoke, I glanced at an article published a few years ago in the Sacramento Bee and passed on to me by Citizen Action. At McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, a massive air-tight tent, 66 feet tall, 630 feet long and 204 feet wide, is being constructed as the Air Force undertakes the excavation of 33,000 cubic feet of soil to be recover about 1,000 drums of radioactive material at an estimated cost of $38 million.

The DOE has lots of sites, Nuttall said, many of which are more dangerous. “But this one is in a large city, on top of its water supply. The issue is deferring the liability and deferring the cost to the next generation,” he said.

“The snake without any question is a rattlesnake. It has fangs. It has been characterized and it has been determined that it will bite. The issue is, how fast can you run?”

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