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Wait for Los Alamos chromium plume cleanup not uncommon

November 11, 2017

By Rebecca Moss
The New Mexican

For nearly two decades, workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of hexavalent chromium, an anti-corrosive used in the cooling towers at the lab’s power plant, into Sandia Canyon. The chemical migrated into Mortidad Canyon and seeped nearly 1,000 feet underground to rest in the regional aquifer.

But in the nearly 14 years since the lab discovered the highly carcinogenic contamination, and the 13 years since the New Mexico Environment Department pledged to take “aggressive action” to clean it up, little has been done to reduce the size or spread of the plume, creeping ever closer to Los Alamos County’s water supply.

That glacial pace of cleanup is not uncommon for industrial pollution in New Mexico. Chemically contaminated areas regularly take several decades to clean up. And that’s true not only for highly chemical and radioactive sites on lab property, but for cities large and small, with problems ranging from dry-cleaning chemicals to gas tank leaks to unregulated mining practices.

New Mexico currently has 20 Superfund cleanup sites, areas the Environmental Protection Agency lists as the most significant priorities for environmental cleanup because of the scope of contamination and threat to public health. State and EPA records that track the progress of these sites show that merely identifying the problem is only the tipping point — the cleanup of industrial pollution often can span the length of time it would take a child to grow up and have a family of his or her own.

Kara Cook-Schultz, director of the Toxic Program for the Public Interest Research Group, said a lack of state and federal funding, coupled with pushback from polluters uninterested in paying for remediation, contributes to long-delayed cleanups nationwide.

“It shouldn’t be that hard to say, ‘This objectively is really bad, you yourself [as the company] think it’s really bad, why are we wasting time?’ ” she said.

“Sadly,” Cook-Schultz said, decades spent without fixing issues, like the chromium plume, “is not uncommon.”

In addition to the chromium plume, the U.S. Department of Energy plans to spend at least $25 million to clean up a plume of the explosive compound RDX at the lab. That plume resulted from explosives testing that began in the 1950s, and is still conducted today. Over time, it has contaminated regional groundwater at several wells, with explosive remnants detected at 100 feet and deeper.

But in 2015 the lab said in a presentation to the Northern New Mexico Citizens’ Advisory Board, a 20-year-old group that provides community input to the Energy Department, that “uncertainty remains about the lateral and vertical extent of these groundwater zones” and that it would take at least another decade to remedy.

At Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, leaks from underground fuel lines and tanks allowed jet fuel to seep into the soil and groundwater over a four-decade period. In 1999, the New Mexico Environment Department was notified of the spill. Initial work to clean up the contaminated soil began in 2003, and nearly 5,000 tons of soil were removed over the following decade. But groundwater cleanup has stalled.

The plume is thought to be nearly 7,000 feet long and up to 1,100 feet wide and at a depth of more than 400 feet — a footprint that reaches beyond Kirtland’s gates. If left untreated, groundwater models show, it eventually would migrate into the water below some residential areas in Albuquerque. Project timelines show cleanup work on the spill extending into the 2020s.

But it’s dry-cleaning chemicals that have confounded some communities across the state, prompting the Environmental Protection Agency to declare a number of areas Superfund sites, many of them dating to the 1990s.

According to the EPA, a laundromat and dry cleaner in Española was responsible for contaminating the aquifer that 10,000 residents in the city and 2,000 members of nearby Santa Clara Pueblo rely on for drinking water.

The 800-foot-wide plume of tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene and dichloroethylene extended underground about three-quarters of a mile from the site of the former business on Railroad Avenue to the Rio Grande, the state Environment Department announced in a news release in 2004, after it had secured EPA funding for remediation. The contamination had forced the closure of two municipal wells.

The tainted groundwater wasn’t the only risk, the EPA said. The dry-cleaning chemicals also can vaporize and seep up into homes.

The plume was identified in 1992, but it took almost a decade to add the site to the EPA’s national priorities list. The EPA and the state have been working to remedy the contamination since 2001 by injecting a bioagent into the groundwater. As of 2015, however, the site still contained enough contamination to remain on the Superfund priority list, and there was uncertainty about whether the state and federal agencies’ efforts to remedy the problem had been effective.

The EPA said in 2015 that “there is currently no known human exposure to contaminated groundwater.” Still, the agency said, a permanent remedy is needed.

Five other sites in the state have been added to the EPA’s Superfund list as a result of dry-cleaning chemical contamination; dozens of other sites also are contaminated with the toxins.

As of February 2017, there were more than 60 ongoing environmental cleanup projects listed by the state Environment Department’s Ground Water Quality Bureau for water contamination from various chemicals, including diesel, nitrates and volatile organic compounds. The state’s spreadsheet of environmental cleanup projects that already have been completed — dating back to the 1950s — runs 27 pages long.

Meanwhile, the chromium plume at Los Alamos, while not a new discovery, has taken on increased visibility after it was found to be closer to the county water supply than previously believed. Studies show the contamination is just a quarter-mile from a key drinking water well.

County officials say they will stop pumping water and file an insurance claim if the plume contaminates the well in question. But the county has taken out a 10-year insurance policy to prepare for potential drinking water issues. The policy could cover the cost of drilling a new well or installing a filtration system, said Julie Williams-Hill, a spokeswoman for Los Alamos County’s Department of Public Utilities.

The lab and county have worked together since the issue was discovered, she added.

“I would like to point out that the Department of Energy and the Los Alamos National Laboratory have been working with Los Alamos County’s Department of Public Utilities since the chromium plume was first discovered in 2005,” Williams-Hill said. “Together, we continually monitor and test all the drinking water production wells.”

Well tests are conducted on a quarterly basis.

Steven Horak, a spokesman for the Energy Department’s Environmental Management Los Alamos Field Office, said, the process “inherently takes time.”

“The depth of the aquifer poses unique challenges, but there is no impediment to implementing a final remedy,” he said.

In a federal draft report from fall 2016, the cleanup of the plume was scheduled to be completed in 2028, and the total cost was expected to be at least $130 million.

The Energy Department said last week that it would release an updated plan on chromium management in March.

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.


Comment by Greg Mello on the above article:

While the headline conclusion is sadly accurate, the LANL cleanup has been almost uniquely wasteful and, for its first decade or more, incompetent. Individuals with literally no prior experience were running the show, in addition to LANL's many other barriers to environmental accountability. Today LANL is fortunate in personnel, with excellent earth scientists like Danny Katzman involved. But serious organizational impediments to cleanup remain. Strong reform efforts can achieve only limited results at LANL. The LANL cleanup program remains wasteful by industry standards, as DOE administrators have acknowledged privately. One informal DOE study from about 10 years ago found that monitoring wells at LANL were costing three times what monitoring wells cost at other DOE sites. Overall, environmental activities at LANL probably cost very roughly 10 times what they cost in industry. It may be more. One NMED hydrologist remarked when that rule of thumb was brought up, "That little?"

The bigger problems with LANL cleanup include the high institutional overhead rates, the strong bias toward research instead of actual cleanup and, to justify this bias, fundamental scientific errors involving excessive confidence about what can be usefully learned about the extremely complex LANL underground, at every level. The hydrologic properties of weathered cracks in vadose zone tuff, for example, are fundamentally unknowable, as are the locations of high porosity features in complex, fractured, volcanic deposits that are the product of multiple eruptions and erosion cycles over a long period of time. These subjects may be interesting, but their practical import is far eclipsed by more creative engineering that LANL should have undertaken long ago, at and near the surface.

Complicating this is the popular misconception of a "regional aquifer" that is subconsciously envisioned as something like a bathtub. Fluids usually move relatively slowly through porous media, in effect isolating distant points except over long periods of time. Discharge zones like the Rio Grande are by definition the end zones of most regional flow, not merely surface features. It is hard to see how the Cr+6 at LANL threatens "the regional aquifer." It is a Los Alamos problem. If someone has data otherwise, please write me at gmello@lasg.org.

Perhaps LANL and LA County should put water supply wells in the middle of the plume and treat the water at the surface.

Political representatives, taxpayers, and LA County officials need to evaluate the efficiency of the money being spent in relation to other environmental and social goals. I could be wrong on this but I think that most of the cleanup money sent to LANL is internally taxed away, and some of what is left supports a research agenda that is substituting for actual cleanup to some degree. This article is almost correct in that actual cleanup, as opposed to a program by that name, will take a long time. If it is not very aggressive it just won't happen, in other words. Even with the best will in the world, however, it can be very hard to remediate porous media at great depth. Technological fantasies are part of LANL's stock-in-trade and a large feature of American culture. Hard-headed decisions about social and environmental priorities, not boosterism, are needed when evaluating LANL's cleanup. In a time of potentially runaway global warming and certainly one of declining net energy availability for our economy, in a state which is circling the drain economically, we cannot afford to throw billions at relatively trivial problems.

LANL will never be cleaned up. Get over that. It can be made safer. but the cost needs to be considered. Halting further waste generation and disposal at LANL is more to the point, as is investing in a post-fossil-fuel economy, which is coming whether we want it or not.

Needless to say, most of the work at LANL is unnecessary -- and increasingly illegal under international law, as more countries gradually adopt the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The world is moving on. Northern New Mexico will remain backward as long it keeps its head firmly wedged in the lab.


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