Group briefed on reduced chromium threat

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More legacy clean-up issues to come

By Roger Snodgrass

It will probably never be listed in the guidebook to Los Alamos, but a route downstream from the headwaters of Sandia Canyon was of interest to a group of visitors Wednesday afternoon.

The Northern New Mexico Citizen’s Advisory Board wanted to get a sense of the current status of an investigation into problems about chromium pollution in the regional aquifer under Los Alamos National Laboratory. The board is a federally chartered organization that advises the Department of Energy on environmental issues at the laboratory.

“This was the first opportunity to give them the overview,” said Danny Katzman, the lab’s water stewardship program manager.

It was a reminder of the public’s continuing interest in the status of legacy waste issues at the laboratory.

On a related subject, a meeting tonight in Santa Fe will begin an independent peer-review process to assess risks related to LANL contaminants in downstream tap water.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s educational tour for staff and members of the environmental advisory board began at the Bradbury Museum with a presentation summarizing recent findings about chromium pollution that has been connected to waste water coming out of the laboratory from about 1956 to 1972.

On a bus, a little later with Katzman, the group passed the old power plant just east of the Omega Bridge on the northern perimeter of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Years of anticorrosive treatments at the plant discharged tens of thousands of pounds of hexavalent chromium down the mountain.

Chromium VI, as it is also known, is an unhealthy form of the element. Years after the practice was stopped, the chromium contaminant was a focus of the movie “Erin Brockovich” in 2000. Then in 2006, it was identified in the regional aquifer down slope from the laboratory.

Under pressure from the water regulators at the New Mexico Environment Department, LANL researchers have combed the historic record, revised groundwater models and drilled a number of test wells. In the process of figuring out how the chromium got there, they discovered last fall that the problem now seems less acute.

In October, the researchers formally reported that the pollutant has largely been absorbed or transformed into a harmless substance by geochemical processes in the mountain. That document is now in the hands of the environment department, which is due to respond in the spring.

The issue continues to be of interest to the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory

The tour group looked over the edge of Sandia Canyon into a wetland pocket just below the county landfill, now closed, where the chromium flushed from the power plant first got a chance to settle. Later, they drove down a part of Sandia Canyon where the stream races through a  bedrock and the canyon bottom is no wider than a bus.

A little farther along, they saw another broad wetland.

“You’re looking at an area 30 feet deep in alluvial material (sediments washed down the canyon),” Katzman said. “That water doesn’t make it any further, so it must be infiltrating.”

He said new tracer studies were under way to confirm that theory.

Another water meeting takes place this evening from 5:30-7:30 p.m. in the Jemez Room Santa Fe Community College at 6401 Richards Ave.

According to an announcement from the Buckman Direct Diversion Project, a major water treatment and diversion investment by the City and County of Santa Fe, “The BDD Board demanded an Independent Peer Review funded by LANL as one of six specific action steps to ensure water quality.”

Serving as principal investigator for the peer review project will be Thomas Widener, who is known by the community as the principal director of the Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment (LAHDRA) Project, a decade-long historical assessment of releases of hazardous chemicals and radiological materials into the environment from Los Alamos.

According to the press release, the team will also include a toxicologist, a physician advisor, health physicists, health risk assessors and an environmental statistician.