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LANL vents toxic ground vapors, raising air quality concerns

LANL air map - SFNM

Posted: Saturday, January 24, 2015 7:00 pm| Updated: 3:21 pm, Mon Jan 26, 2015.

By Staci Matlock
The New Mexican

Schneider, White Rock, SFNMWHITE ROCK — For years, workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory dumped canisters, drums and other containers of liquid chemical waste into shafts on a mesa bordering this small town near the birthplace of the atomic bomb. The containers leaked, creating a plume of toxic chemical vapor that has been seeping through tiny pores in soil and volcanic rock in a slow march toward regional groundwater and the Rio Grande.

A citizens advisory board approved a proposal in 2010 for the lab to clean up the plume by releasing the vapors into the air. The proposal presented to the board included using carbon filters to collect most of the contaminants. The lab would then ship the filters to a toxic waste dump in Utah.

But the cleanup began recently with the lab releasing the gases directly into the air without the filters. The state’s Environment Department approved the change without public notice. The lab and the state say a public hearing was not needed because the amount of pollutants that would be released into the air falls within the limits allowed by the lab’s clean air permit, which covers its entire 40-square-mile property.

A former contractor for the lab, who asked not to be named to protect a current government contract, calls the amended plan “using dilution for pollution.” He worries the plan may not do enough to protect people living in places closest to the venting, like the town of White Rock and San Ildefonso Pueblo, from inhaling the potentially carcinogenic vapors, especially in unfavorable winds.

“The mission should be to clean up the toxic vapor — not just move it from one potential contaminate pathway to another,” said the former lab contractor.

San Ildefonso Pueblo Gov. James Mountain, who took office in early January, said he was aware of the vapor plume and cleanup plan, but he declined to comment further.

Greg Schneider, a professional musician and composer who lives in White Rock, said, “It makes me angry. … This seems to fit a pattern of the lab covering up toxic emissions and waste or, once the waste is discovered, then minimizing the danger. As someone who lives here, I wonder about the health effects.”

A toxic plume grows

The nonradioactive waste was dumped from 1975 to 1985 at Material Disposal Area L, part of Technical Area 54. The plume of toxic vapor was discovered a couple of years later, and the dump was shut down. The lab spent the last several years testing the extent of the plume and methods for cleaning it up.

The underground cloud of chemical vapor is made up of volatile organic compounds — pollutants emitting from materials like solvents, paints and cleaning supplies that can cause headaches and dizziness and increased risk of cancer. It is one of at least six plumes of pollutants caused by decades of hazardous waste dumped into trenches, shafts and pits, scattered on mesas and in canyons around lab property. Other plumes contain chromium, nitrates, perchlorates, uranium and high explosives.

The cost of cleaning up all the plumes is estimated in the billions of dollars.

The lab submitted an interim cleanup plan for the toxic plume in late April to the state Environment Department, proposing to vacuum the contaminated vapor up through two wells and vent it — unfiltered — into the air. The lab and the state want to prevent the toxic vapor from spreading into groundwater or leaking into lab buildings above the plume.

The former subcontractor thinks the lab is cutting corners that it shouldn’t cut, especially when there’s an easy fix, such as a carbon filter that can remove most of the contaminants.

“Even if emissions fall within the lab’s existing permit levels without filtering doesn’t make it the right thing to do,” he said. “This is really about being honest with, and doing what is right by, the folks who are in a very real way at risk of exposure to these voluntary emissions and letting them have their rightful say — site workers, San Ildefonso landowners and White Rock residents.”

The vented vapor includes trichloroethane and trichloroethylene, benzene and other potentially carcinogenic chemicals.

Lab officials say it would cost $500,000 to use carbon filters and ship them later to a hazardous waste facility — but they insist cost isn’t the reason the filters aren’t being used. The filters weren’t necessary because pollutants emitted in the vapor during the cleanup project will still be below the contaminant thresholds allowed under the lab’s air quality permit from the state, the lab says.

The state Environment Department’s Air Quality Bureau says based on information submitted by the lab, the project won’t emit enough chemicals to violate thresholds set under the lab’s existing air quality permit and doesn’t require a separate permit. “Based on the calculated air emission rates, no air permit was required to be obtained to construct and operate the unit,” said department spokeswoman Jill Turner.

The Environment Department can’t require the lab to do additional cleanup measures as long as the lab is meeting the requirements of its permit, Turner said.

Environment Department and lab staff say even measured at the plume extraction site, the emissions won’t be above contaminant thresholds.

Changing a cleanup plan

The lab’s plan submitted to the state also is different from the plume cleanup proposal approved in 2010 by the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board, which is appointed by the Department of Energy to give local communities some say in LANL’s activities.

In 2010, the Northern New Mexico Citizens’ Advisory Board approved the lab’s suggestions for cleaning up the plume, which included the soil-vapor extraction and a carbon filter. “Such a source removal effort would improve any final remedy and reduce the possibility of contaminant migration into the groundwater or into the atmosphere,” said the board at the time.

Lab officials gave the board a brief update in November about the cleanup plan. But Menice Santistevan, the board’s executive director, said the lab did not give the board a detailed plan and she did not recall whether lab officials specifically told the board that carbon filters wouldn’t be used. The board plans to discuss the vapor plume cleanup again in March, according to Santistevan.

Cleaning up the plume is a good idea, say those familiar with the contamination, including Greg Mello of the nuclear watchdog Los Alamos Study Group. Mello inspected the dumps in the 1980s. But cleaning up the plume should be done right, they said.

“It’s inexplicable that DOE would approve a vapor extraction system without remediation of the contaminated gases,” Mello said. “Take carcinogens from the soil, put ‘em in the air for people to breathe? That doesn’t compute.”

The vapor plume has drifted down about 300 feet below the land surface in porous volcanic rock. The plume is about 600 feet above regional groundwater, according to the lab. No one knows how long before the plume could migrate into groundwater and eventually the Rio Grande.

Under LANL’s state air quality permit, the lab can emit 200 tons a year of volatile organic compounds but no more than 8 tons of any individual hazardous pollutant like trichloroethane.

The lab estimates the emissions from cleaning the vapor plum will be far under those limits — 2.57 tons per year of volatile organic compounds and total of 6.48 tons of hazardous pollutants.

But for some nearby residents like Schneider, LANL’s role in last year’s radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad has made them more distrustful of the lab and its estimates.

“I’m not paranoid about the lab, but I would like to see more transparency and an independent ombudsman who could look at information coming out of the lab,” Schneider said. “It is hard to know who to trust and what to believe.”

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.

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