Advisory board ruffled by change

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – The winds of change came down from Washington like an unexpected squall over the weekend.

The Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board held a special meeting of the executive committee Wednesday to discuss what seemed to be critical comments about who they were and how they were giving their environmental advice about Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The volunteers on the board wondered what was behind the changes requested by the Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management.

How much of it was criticism of the work they had done?

The informal orders from headquarters came in the form of a conversation between the Deputy Designated Federal Officer, Jeff Casalina and his boss in Washington, D.C., the Designated Federal Officer Cate Brennan.

Casalina, who supervises the work of the board for DOE, boiled it down to five suggested changes:

• Increase diversity among board members to reflect the local populous;

• Diversify the topics CAB works, possibly to include more environmental justice issues;

• Reduce technical complexity with the topics;

• Have more evening meetings to allow working people to participate; and

• Reduce the hours required for CAB participation.

“The diversity issue is something we have never disagreed with,” said Casalina.

He announced at the same time that two Pueblo women, one from Taos Pueblo and one from Santa Clara Pueblo had just been interviewed and would be joining the board, after a process that began in October.

“We have two new Pueblo members; both of them are environmental scientists,” he said.

It was generally agreed that some potential Native American participants felt they had a more direct line to LANL, DOE and Washington through their tribal governments than taking the long route through the CAB’s committee process.

The question of environmental justice was harder to answer.

Some board members, like Fran Berting, former Los Alamos County Councilor thought it was a bad rap.

“We hear regularly and frequently at various meetings of the concerns of those who feel injustice in what the laboratories have done,” she wrote in her formal comments on the suggested changes, “so we are not unaware of the real and perceived environmental, geographic and political injustices rendered upon various tribes and civic groups.”

But she thought environmental justice as a focal point would be distracting and counterproductive and would politicize the advisory group.

She recalled the activism that welled up in the mid-’90s and led DOE to disband an earlier citizens board.

Two minority members had resigned from the board recently.

“Panic sets in when they get a list and somebody has dropped out,” said Pam Hemline, one of the longest serving members of the board.

Others in the group were more outspoken, including nominal minority members who did not want to be perceived as filling a quota.

Chairman J.D. Campbell, an engineer from Taos who attended the meeting by telephone, objected to the opposition to the board’s technical work.

“I sense that headquarters is reacting from comments from site (Los Alamos) about some of our technical comments,” he said. “LANL would like to stifle some of our recommendations.”

Among other things, CAB recommendations have influenced changes in the laboratory groundwater program, particularly in terms of drilling methods for regional wells.

The board has also made a number of technical recommendations about closing out Area G, one of the main radioactive and hazardous waste disposal areas.

Campbell said advisory boards at other sites were also deeply engaged in technical issues.

The next NNMCAB Meeting is 2-8 p.m. March 25 at the Holiday Inn, 4048 Cerillos Road in Santa Fe.

A public comment period and discussion of recommendations takes place from 6-8 p.m.