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Fighting for clean water: Activists file suit for healthy watershed

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – A broad array of community environmental and cultural organizations announced a civil complaint against the Department of Energy and Los Alamos National Security in federal court Thursday.Speaking at a press conference at the Capitol, Michael Jensen of Amigo Bravos said the coalition was starting a “citizen enforcement action” to remedy a history of contamination caused by the nuclear weapons laboratory that regulators failed to stop.In speeches, press releases, documents and the court complaint itself, members of the umbrella organization known as Communities for Clean Water charged the laboratory with six years of contamination that threaten downstream drinking water sources in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and beyond.Megan Anderson of the Western Environmental Law Center and legal counsel for the alliance of groups and individuals said CCW would seek civil penalties, injunctive relief, and a timelier and more responsible cleanup project at the laboratory.She said the complaint argues that the laboratory has failed to comply with clean-water quality standards, failed to conduct adequate monitoring, failed to comply with reporting requirements and failed to have adequate pollution-control measures in place.The laboratory issued a press release Thursday afternoon expressing surprise about the lawsuit.“Rather than a lawsuit, we had hoped to continue our work with these groups along with the general public through the public permitting process,” said Susan Stiger, associate director for Environmental Programs, in the release.The laboratory faces a 10-year overdue renewal of an operating permit for its hazardous wastes and a separate approval of a draft permit from the Environmental Protection Agency that regulates storm water runoff from the property. Meanwhile, the laboratory has delayed some cleanup projects underway because of uncertainties with the budgeting process.The suit contained a compendium of well-known environmental issues at the laboratory, many of them self-identified in laboratory documents.Pollution threats mentioned by the plaintiffs included radionuclides, which are regulated by the Department of Energy itself, and chemical hazards including (Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), Chromium VI, perchlorate, 1,4 dioxane, and high explosives. The use of unlined pits and trenches to store nuclear nuclear wastes at Area G has been an ongoing concern.In the prepared reply, LANL addressed the PCB complaints, noting that the laboratory’s studies had been the first to identify PCBs upstream and downstream of the laboratory. The two measurements, the announcement said, are comparable.“The laboratory’s contribution to PCBs in the Rio Grande is relatively minor compared to the widespread presence of PCBs in the Rio Grande,” the laboratory announcement stated.PCBs, most often related to old electrical equipment, were banned in 1977.Harold Trujilo, representing the New Mexico Acequia Association, said his group, which governs 400 traditional irrigation systems in the state, had passed a resolution in support of the lawsuit at its annual meeting in December.He said his group’s concerns had to do with pollutants affecting food, hay and other agricultural products.CCW spokespeople said the suit grows out of many years of cumulative work by its member organizations. One sign of progress, they said, has been that three years ago, LANL denied the problems. Now, they said, LANL admits the problems.New Mexico Environment Secretary Ron Curry, who sat in the audience at the press conference,  said afterward that he welcomes the lawsuit.“It helps support the intent of the consent order,” he said, referring to the comprehensive cleanup agreement between the state and the laboratory that is intended to guarantee cleanup by 2015.A new budget request from the Department of Energy contains about $162 million for LANL cleanup next year, tens of millions less than the lab has estimated it will need to meet milestones under the cleanup order.“We are not going to retreat from our position,” Curry said. He said the state’s agreement with the laboratory was called a “consent order” for good reason, not a “program management” plan, as the lab wanted, so that the terms could change with changing circumstances.“If they miss a milestone,” he said, “they’re going to have to pay stipulated penalties.”Groups and individuals who have joined the lawsuit include Amigos Bravos, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Dan Gabino Andrade Community Acequia Association, Partnership for Earth Spirituality, Rio Grande Restoration, SouthWest Organizing Project, Gilbert Sanchez, Kathy Sanchez and Tewa Women United.