Have A Drink?

Sandia National Labs And Its Critics Disagree Over The Danger Posed By A Toxic Landfill To Albuquerque’s Drinking Water

Tom OConnell
4 min read
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Think twice before drinking from your tap. According to recent studies by Sandia National Laboratories, 13 organic carcinogenic compounds have been detected in two monitoring wells in or near the labs’ Mixed Waste Landfill, located near Kirtland Airforce Base. It’s a discovery that doesn’t sit well with local government watchdog group Citizen Action, who believes the contaminants could pose a health risk for Albuquerqueans.

The 2.6-acre Mixed Waste Landfill received waste materials from 1959 to 1988. It contains equipment like lab coats, gloves and mops that are laced with radioactive and other hazardous wastes. Since its closure almost two decades ago, the debate over what to do with the site has raged. Citizen Action and others have argued for its removal. Meanwhile, the lab cites the danger of stirring up the waste, the danger to workers if the site is excavated and the cost (Sandia estimates it would take between $416 and $702 million).

Last year, the New Mexico Environment Department approved simply capping the site with three feet of dirt and a one-foot bio-intrusion barrier (crushed, jagged rock beneath the dirt). The condition of capping the site was that the groundwater around the landfill was to be closely monitored to ensure dangerous levels of contaminants weren’t seeping into Albuquerque’s aquifer.

Yet Sandia’s latest groundwater analysis, dated April 2005, does show the presence of harmful materials, including acetone, barium, nickel, uranium, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, beryllium, mercury and thalium. However, most materials were found at levels deemed safe. “No inorganic or organic parameters were detected above the corresponding [maximum containment levels] in any samples,” reads the report. And in instances where levels were found to be above acceptable limits, the report attributes the findings to “inadvertent laboratory-introduced contamination” and other factors, such as rusted screens on well equipment.

Excuses like these are a big concern for Citizen Action. Geologist Bob Gilkeson, along with Citizen Action, presented his own independent analysis of well samples to the Groundwater Protection Advisory Board (GPAB) in Albuquerque on Nov. 9. They informed the GPAB that Sandia’s well No. 4, located under one of the landfill’s many unlined trenches (this one containing 270,000 gallons of reactor-coolant-water waste), “is a fast pathway for spreading contamination into Albuquerque’s water supply because the well is leaking into groundwater from improper construction and a leaking [seal],” according to Dave McCoy of Citizen Action.

Gilkeson believes the problem may be worse than Sandia’s studies reveal. He warned the GPAB that he thinks Sandia’s well-construction and sampling methods are flawed and careless, and may omit as much as 70 percent of hazardous compounds found in the water.

But there’s really no reason to fear the water coming out of your faucet, say lab representatives. Sandia spokesperson Will Keener told the
Alibi , “There isn’t any threat to the public health,” and denied that Sandia studies suggested otherwise. Keener and his entire family drink from the tap, he said, and there’s no reason the rest of Albuquerque shouldn’t do the same.

Still, Gilkeson saw reason enough to worry and filed a complaint in June with the Department of Energy’s Inspector General, claiming that Sandia’s wells and testing methods are inadequate.

In response to Gilkeson’s complaint to the Inspector General, Sandia representative J. Paul Freshour said the monitoring system was functioning “as designed” and that the Inspector General complaint was closed.

Alibi verified that the IG’s case is, indeed, still open in this matter. Sandia, however, provided a memo from the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration addressed to the DOE’s Eastern Inspection Region of the Office of Inspections and Special Investigations stating that Sandia’s wells and well-sampling techniques were in accordance with current regulations, that Gilkeson’s claims were inaccurate, and that the complaint was closed.

Even so, McCoy believes that even trace amounts of carcinogens in the aquifer is cause for alarm. “They need to excavate these wastes,” he says. “They’ve got 15 to 20 years of either no monitoring or inadequate monitoring in place.

“To leave these wastes lying above the aquifer covered with a three-foot layer of dirt is totally irresponsible and could lead to contamination of drinking water for a thousand generations. The argument that it would be too costly [to fix the problem] is ridiculous.”

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