Agency cites county for PCB contamination

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LANL is believed to be the source

By Roger Snodgrass

This shoe is usually on another foot.

The New Mexico Environment Department, with major responsibiliies for environmental oversight at Los Alamos National Laboratory, occasionally issues notices or penalizes the nuclear weapons facility for violations of state surface water standards.

This week, NMED cited Los Alamos County for allowing a discharge of the contaminant PCB into Los Alamos Canyon from the County Annex Building.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs are mixtures of chemicals, which are no longer produced in the United States but have a residual presence in the environment and adverse health effects on humans. PCBs are known to cause cancer in animals.

The county responded Wednesday to NMED’s notice with a press release, putting the blame provisionally back on the laboratory.

“The discharges were sampled below the County Annex on the north side of LA (Los Alamos) Canyon,” county officials replied. “Based upon information provided in the notice, County staff believes that the sampling was performed below an identified LANL Solid Waste Management Unit (SWMU), also known as TA-32.”

SWMUs are previously identified sources of contamination that are normally engineered to prevent or limit further damage to the environment, while awaiting cleanup or remediation.

The County Yard, located at the annex includes administrative

offices, fleet maintenance operations, material storage and miscellaneous other municipal operations activity, according to a description in NMED’s formal notice.

“The county yard has remnant transformers stored,” said Marcy Leavitt, NMED Director of water and waste management. “It is likely PCBs were in the soil there and when storm water runs across the site, it picks up those contaminants.”

Leavitt said the notice was issued under the direct enforcement power of the environmental department, which is only rarely invoked.

The violations came out of a stormwater study the department conducted in 2007 to examine PCBs in the canyons surrounding the laboratory. The department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau collected data from samplers that had been placed in various places surrounding the laboratory and one was in the yard at the Municipal Annex.

“The county violated state water quality standards on Aug. 3 and Sept. 5 (2007) by allowing the discharge of PCBs into surface waters in excess of state water quality standards,” the notice stated. The Aug. 3 samples were found to be approximately 12 times the PCB wildlife habitat criterion. The Aug. 3 and Sept. 12 samples respectively measured approximately 255 times and six times the state’s PCB human health criterion.

The direct measurement and enforcement may have been a first for the regulators.

“Since I’ve been in the program, I’m not aware of any direct enforcement actions for standards violations,” Leavitt said.

The county said the SWMU that has been identified has been characterized and recommended for PCB cleanup prior to transfer to Los Alamos County and that LANL is in the process of submitting their TA-32 work plan to NMED this week. The County has worked with LANL for more than a year on the necessary remediation work for TA-32. Clean-up is expected to occur in late January.

NMED has proposed a fine of $13,200 based on a policy that weighs factors such as how long the violation occurred and the severity of the problem, but department officials are prepared to discuss the situation further with the county.

According to the notice, the county has 30 days to take corrective actions.

The county statement said the staff and County Attorney Mary McInerney are investigating the issue and they will make recommendations for responding to NMED’s notice.