Are We Watching Our Radioactive Waste?

Christie Chisholm
8 min read
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Robert Gilkeson has a lot in common with the 73 cubic yards of transuranic waste festering in Sandia National Labs’ Mixed Waste Landfill. Both are homeless. Both are situated in dangerous locations. And both are waiting for the day when a bunch of scientists will make a decision that will allow them to move on.

Gilkeson’s predicament, of course, is a matter of choice, whereas the landfill isn’t quite so lucky. The 2.6-acre unlined pit became the dumping grounds for nuclear weapons research materials during the Cold War and, with nothing more than a 15- to 25-foot seal of dirt pressed over it in 1988, since has become a hotbed of local controversy. Some scientists and activists argue the site should be excavated to avoid potential hazards the radioactive and toxic waste could provoke, such as contents of the site slipping into the air or groundwater. Other scientists and state officials believe the site is too dangerous and fickle to clean out and have pushed for the landfill to be left alone and monitored.

Two years ago, the latter side won out when the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) ruled that the site should be capped with an additional three feet of dirt and carefully watched, saying previous monitoring showed contaminants weren’t moving at a rate that would allow them to escape into the surrounding environment. Yet the realization this summer that some monitoring wells at the landfill weren’t working properly, causing NMED to order their replacement, has left some wondering whether last year’s decision was based on reliable evidence.

Gilkeson believes it wasn’t, and it is this conviction, along with another, that has landed him without a home. The 63-year-old worked as an expert consultant to Los Alamos National Laboratories for more than a decade, where, among other things, he was in charge of a project to install monitoring wells beneath the labs. Then, he says, NMED gave Los Alamos advice that contradicted his own, telling the labs to use drilling methods that were quicker and cheaper but that also skewed the results of the monitoring and hid potential contaminants. When Los Alamos followed NMED’s advice, Gilkeson quit in 1999 and went to Phoenix to work for the Honeywell Corporation for a couple years. But he soon returned with the goal of getting the labs to fix their monitoring procedures, writing reports about Los Alamos’ drilling practices and sending them to the governor, NMED and the Environmental Protection Agency, but without any tangible results.

Then last year, while at a public meeting for the National Academy of Sciences, someone who was concerned with well monitoring at the Mixed Waste Landfill approached Gilkeson and told him about the issue. Soon after he called Citizen Action, a watchdog group for Sandia spawned from ex-members of Sandia’s Citizen Advisory Board, and started consulting with the organization on the landfill pro bono, using public records to analyze data on the wells.

But Gilkeson’s work on the issue, and his determination to see things change at Los Alamos, has come at a price. Originally planning to have retired by now in a log cabin he owned in Montana, concealed in a high mountain valley on the Madison River, Gilkeson instead decided to stay in Albuquerque until his work was resolved. Expecting progress to move faster, he temporarily moved himself into a cheap motel. Several years later Gilkeson is still in that motel, and last summer he sold his log cabin. But he doesn’t regret his choice. “I’m not leaving this problem,” he says. “The record shows that experts can come in and write reports about the failure to protect groundwater, and those reports will be ignored. The problem is large.”

Gilkeson believes the Mixed Waste Landfill suffers from some of the same problems that exist at Los Alamos—namely, that the monitoring wells at the site aren’t working properly. He’s expressed this concern to Sandia and NMED for nearly a year.

There are seven wells at the Mixed Waste Landfill. On March 23, NMED ordered one of them to be replaced. Then on July 2, the agency ordered the replacement of two more. James Bearzi, NMED’s Hazardous Waste Bureau chief, says the reason the wells’ replacement was ordered was because of routine maintenance—water levels had dropped and the wells were drying up, and the wells were showing signs of corrosion on their stainless steel screens, which can affect the data they collect. “Characterizing this replacement as something urgent is kind of alarmist,” he says. “None of this is a surprise. I don’t really consider it news.”

But Gilkeson thinks the corrosion on the wells shouldn’t be easily dismissed. Chromium has been detected in the wells above drinking water standards. The element could be a byproduct of corrosion, he says, but the site also has a history of chromium waste. Instead of investigating the old wells, they’ll be plugged and new wells drilled more than 500 feet away. “When you detect this kind of contamination, it needs to be investigated,” says Gilkeson. “You don’t walk away from the problem. This is inappropriate laxity.”

Gilkeson isn’t reassured by the new wells, either, because he says the methods used to collect data on all the wells are ineffective. He says standard practice at Sandia is to pump the wells dry and come back a week later to test the water that’s trickled back in. “But some of the contaminants are solvents,” he says, adding that when the wells are pumped dry those solvents can “turn into vapor and quickly disappear” so they’re never detected. Gilkeson says the pumps in the wells are also being run too quickly. “When you pump the monitoring wells so they dry repeatedly, it causes hydraulic damage to the strata and hurts its ability to produce water,” he says, which also compromises testing. “There’s never been one reliable monitoring well beneath that dump.”

Dave McCoy, director of Citizen Action, is concerned by Gilkeson’s findings, and thinks NMED’s decision to cap the Mixed Waste Landfill should be reconsidered. “Without proper monitoring in place, how do they know?” he says. “There could very well be releases that are unnoticed at this point.”

Citizen Action has been adamantly opposed to capping the landfill since its inception and filed a lawsuit in fall 2005 against NMED when the agency issued its decision. The case remains open.

Michael Padilla, spokesperson for Sandia, says the labs don’t think capping the site should be reconsidered. “We stick to the position that the groundwater is safe,” he says.

Some materials from the landfill have been detected around the site, although not yet far enough down to put the groundwater at risk. In 1995, tritium, a radioactive element that binds with water, was found 100 feet below the site. The water table rests about 460 feet below ground. Another material that is being watched closely is PCE, a volatile organic compound. According to a Fate and Transport Model for the site completed earlier this year, which acts as a prediction for how contaminants in the site will migrate, there’s a high probability that PCE will already have reached groundwater, but only a 1 percent chance that it will ever exceed regulatory standards. PCE has not yet been detected in the groundwater.

As things stand, the plan to cap the landfill will move forward. A date hasn’t been set for the capping and is dependent on results from soil vapor studies around the site Sandia still needs to complete. The last soil vapor studies done on the site were in 1995 and found low levels of volatile organic compounds such as TCE, PCE and 1,1,1-TCA.

Gilkeson says he doesn’t know what the risk is of materials from the Mixed Waste Landfill escaping into the environment, but he would still like to see the site excavated. “The decision to put a dirt cover over the dump is not based on reliable knowledge,” he says. “The wastes buried there are at a shallow depth, there’s danger of releases to vaporization, burrowing animals … This waste will be dangerous for more than the next 250,000 years. I don’t want that pile of waste left inside a city underneath a dirt cover.”
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