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Emergency drill planned for DP Road

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By Roger Snodgrass

The hazardous waste cleanup site along DP Road will be the focus of a coordinated emergency exercise next week.

The operation will involve several vehicles from the county and Los Alamos National Laboratory. Los Alamos Fire Department, county emergency officials, LANL management and protective services will also participate in what will become a series of exercises as the project progresses.

The exercise will take place on Tuesday, St. Patrick’s Day, in the morning, mainly to make sure that responders become familiar with the location and know where to deploy their equipment.

The drill, which will be observed by representatives of the state and neighboring pueblos, is part of an effort to make sure the work is prepared for any eventuality from the beginning.

These exercises are expected to increase in complexity and scope as the project moves along. The project over its three-year period will have a total cost of $60 million, with about $36 million of that going to a contractor, Portage Environmental.

The excavation period will take about a year, starting sometime in the summer, according to current projections.

“Our commitment to the public is, ‘You will be safe,’” said Al Chaloupka, program director for the closure project at Technical Area 21.

At a public meeting Thursday night at the University of New Mexico-Los Alamos campus, Chaloupka and a team of environmental management and remediation experts updated the public on the beginning of a much more active and visible phase of the project.

“Since the last meeting two years ago,” Chaloupka said, “we have new and better information about how we are going to do this work.”

Waste removal plans include two lightweight, moveable enclosures, limited accumulation of combustible materials and disciplined safety preparations and training, among the many issues covered in the presentation.

There are some tricky things about this work at Material Disposal Area B, the lab’s first radioactive waste disposal area that was used between 1944 and 1948.

The hazardous material from the plutonium processing facility at the end of DP mesa has no official inventory and what is actually buried can only be guessed at with the help of oral histories, process reports, and various other studies. There may also be explosive chemicals in the trash.

A radiological baseline survey in the summer of 2006 found localized subsurface samples or radioactive materials that were above background. These included cesium-137, americium-241 and “possibly” thorium-232.

The project investigators estimate that about 200 grams of plutonium are scattered across the site, a segment of which served as a trailer park for a period of time.

The radiological inventory in two sections of unlined trenches also includes plutonium, polonium, uranium, curium, lanthanum and actinium. The entire pit is estimated to contain less than 6.13 curies of plutonium-239.

The cleanup will be monitored to meet air quality criteria under the Clean Air Act. The MDA-B project is apportioned about half of the total limit of 10 millirem exposure for the entire laboratory.

Air monitoring stations have been set up primarily on the north perimeter between the project and the nearby business and industrial buildings.

Another risk factor for the project has to do with the proximity of commercial buildings across DP road from the MDA-B, along with houses, a swimming pool and other public activity across a small ravine on the north.  This neighboring population contributes to the need for complex emergency plans.

Chaloupka mentioned two options, both involving a notification process. Occupants would be told to evacuate or “shelter in place.” He said notification would be by siren, radio, or some other means, but that had not been decided yet.

He acknowledged that people would have to be trained and prepared if they were to be required to shelter in place.

An open question and answer period concluded the meeting.

Rob Heineman, chairman of Pueblo Electric, said he didn’t think the economic issues were being addressed for the neighboring businesses like his.

“Can you squash the rumor that property on the north side of DP road is going to be bought up?” he asked.

“That’s the first I’ve ever heard of this rumor,” Chaloupka said.

Heineman said his leasing agent had lost a lease because of fears that the government-owned parking land might eventually disappear.

“I need a hard answer about this,” Heineman said.

Project officials spoke with him further after the meeting.