News Feature: Water You Drinking?

A Watchdog Group Says Groundwater Contamination Could Exist And We’d Never Know It

Simon McCormack
6 min read
Water You Drinking?
An aerial view of Sandia Labs’ Mixed Waste Landfill around 1987. (From, Citizen Action’s website)
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Groundwater from Albuquerque’s aquifer lies less than 500 feet below Sandia Labs’ Mixed Waste Landfill.

Sandia Labs says there’s no evidence any of the waste in the landfill has contaminated the water. But an environmental watchdog group says we can’t know for sure, and it’s concerned that Albuquerque’s drinking water may be at risk.

Monitoring Meltdown?

Dave McCoy, director of public interest group
Citizen Action, says three of the four new monitoring wells designed to detect water contamination have been improperly installed. McCoy says the new wells—put in this year as replacements for wells that had begun to corrode—were dug too deep to produce trustworthy data. “They say there’s no evidence of contamination to the groundwater,” McCoy says. “Well, how could there be evidence if you never had a monitoring network that was capable of detecting contamination in the first place?”

The Mixed Waste Landfill is a Cold War-era chemical dumping ground for Sandia Labs that’s been controversial for years [News Feature “
Undercover,” Sept. 20-26, 2007]. And it’s not that far away. The landfill is five miles southeast of Albuquerque International Sunport and a mile east of the planned Mesa del Sol development.

McCoy says he bases his assertion on documentation provided by Sandia Labs that details the geological characteristics of the area below the landfill.

He says the replacement wells were drilled across two zones of saturation—one rocky and one fine-grained. If the two kinds of soil mingle, it can cause an inaccurate reading.

James Bearzi, chief of the Hazardous Waste Bureau at the New Mexico Environment Department, says the wells were installed correctly and are providing reliable data. “None of the wells are defective,” Bearzi says. The wells are drawing in relatively small amounts of water, he notes, and that indicates the wells are not drilled too deep. If the wells were deep-set, Bearzi says greater amounts of water would enter them. That’s because there’s more water deeper underground.

Down the Drain

McCoy says if the water were to be contaminated, it could become polluted by any number of radioactive or otherwise hazardous materials, including plutonium and americium. “This stuff is going to be around for 250,000 years,” McCoy says. “It’s toxic and lethal to anyone who lives in this area.” The materials in the landfill could cause cancer, birth defects or other illnesses, he adds.

McCoy says the city’s wells draw from the regional aquifer, and part of that aquifer is underneath the Mixed Waste Landfill. If the water underneath the landfill is pumped into the city’s wells, he says, Albuquerque’s drinking water could be contaminated.

There’s no conclusive evidence that the aquifer water contains waste from the landfill. But McCoy contends it’s not being monitored effectively, and there are signs that pollution may have infiltrated the aquifer.

“As we have a growing urban population dependent on any source of water that it can obtain, it behooves us to keep a clean water source," McCoy says.

Robert Gilkeson agrees with McCoy’s assessment of the monitoring wells. He’s been analyzing data for Citizen Action on the Sandia Labs Mixed Waste Landfill for years. He is a registered geologist who was employed by Los Alamos National Laboratory as a lead consultant for installing its monitoring wells.

He says the fact that the state Environment Department approves of Sandia Labs’ monitoring devices is unsettling. “The New Mexico Environment Department’s staff only got the public part of their mandate correct,” Gilkeson says. “Instead of public servants, they’ve become public enemy of the protection of the environment and public health.”

Stirring Up Trouble

Gilkeson says a couple of Sandia’s older well monitors picked up evidence of high levels of nickel in the groundwater. Bearzi chalks up the data to the corrosion of the stainless steel monitors. Those monitors have since been replaced with “plastic screen” versions that won’t corrode. But Gilkeson says the levels of nickel were high enough to suggest there are landfill materials in the water. He says LANL and the Environment Department should investigate further.

Bearzi says if nickel were polluting the groundwater, there would be traces of the element in the area above the water. No such evidence exists, according to Bearzi.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that long-term exposure to high levels of nickel can decrease body weight, irritate skin and cause heart and liver damage.

McCoy says excavating the landfill remains the only viable solution for dealing with the possibility of groundwater pollution. He says some of the material could be shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), while other waste could be encased in concrete. “They have the technology to excavate it,” McCoy says. “But they don’t want to spend the money, and they don’t care if the public has to suffer the health consequences down the road.”

Sandia Labs Spokesperson Stephanie Holinka says digging up the waste is a dangerous option. In an e-mail, she writes that excavating the landfill puts the workers charged with removing the material at risk. “Leaving the waste in place … ,” she says, “and monitoring the landfill was determined to be the final remedy that was most protective of human health and the environment.”

McCoy notes that robotic equipment could be used to move the materials, but Bearzi says that option doesn’t make sense. If there’s no evidence of groundwater contamination, he says, why chance anything going wrong by digging it up? “It’s possible to use robotic equipment, but you still have to deal with the material,” Bearzi says. “If it’s something that doesn’t pose a threat, why run that risk?”

McCoy says an informed citizenry may be the only way to make sure Sandia Labs plays it safe
. "The public needs to wake up pretty soon," McCoy says. “If they don’t, a few years down the road, they are going to be in deep trouble."
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