Hot spots found in Pajarito watersheds

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Water quality in Los Alamos questioned

By Roger Snodgrass

For the third time in two weeks, officials of New Mexico Environment Department have raised an issue about water quality in Los Alamos.

The latest report came in the form of a comprehensive assessment of surface water quality on the Pajarito Plateau, a collection of more than 29,000 data points from 78 stations, covering the period from 2004-2009.

Much significant data came from Los Alamos National Laboratory, department officials said.

Lynette Guevara, who coordinated the study for the department said Thursday that the timing on the report was a matter of meeting the deadline for delivering the report to the Environmental Protection Agency. The Clean Water Act requires the report by April 1 in even numbered years. Releasing it now will allow enough time for a 60-day comment period and revisions before that date in 2010, Guevara said.

“Everything’s totally separate,” Guevara said Thursday. “It might seem like it was all timed together, but no.”

 “The results of the previous surface water quality assessment have largely confirmed, albeit with much greater detail, the water quality impairments identified by NMED during the last Pajarito Plateau assessment in 2006,” NMED said in its announcement Thursday.

 “This is the next step of continuing process that the laboratory has been happy to cooperate with,” laboratory spokesperson Fred deSousa said this morning. “We acknowledge that past releases have affected the environment and are working hard to meet our cleanup obligations.”

He added, “The water in Los Alamos and the surrounding areas is safe and we intend to keep it that way.”

James Hogan the monitoring and assessment program manager for the assessmet said the area covered in the current study centered on the laboratory, but covered areas outside LANL.

“The range is from Frijoles Canyon and Bandelier in the south to Guaje Canyon in the north and above and below the lab.”

Specifically, the newly released study said, the available data “exceeded human health criterion” in storm water for PCBs (polychlorinated byphenols) throughout most of the study area where sufficient data were available.

Among other observations, the study found adjusted gross alpha, a criterion for measuring alpha radiation, “was exceeded nearly everywhere sufficient data were available with the study area.”

The study found aluminum to be “by far the largest metal impairment,” but said that the natural geography of the region may account for that. Previous findings of excessive selenium seemed to have subsided, leading the investigators to conclude that previous high concentrations may have been a residual influence of the Cerro Grande Fire.

Finally, there were 14 assessment areas where copper concentrations exceed the criteria, six for mercury, and four for acute zinc.

The Surface Water Quality Bureau database was collected as part of a special study of the Pajarito Plateau in 2006, funded by the EPA.

Earlier this week, NMED proposed a fine against Los Alamos County for discharging excessive amounts of PCBs from the Municipal Annex yard on Diamond Drive. In a preliminary response, county officials said they thought the source must be related to the laboratory.

Last week, during a weeklong triennial review of the state Water Quality Commission standards, the environment department proposed new numeric reporting requirements for radiological contaminants downstream from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

LANL first objected to the change, but then withdrew their objection with the understanding that the requirements were not an attempt to impinge on federal laws, which assign responsibility for managing radionuclides to the Department of Energy.

The Pajarito study is part of a larger study, the Integrated List that indicates whether waters are meeting designated use for New Mexico’s water quality standards.

Typical uses are “domestic and public water supplies, irrigation, aquatic life, wildlife habitat and human health.”

These studies do not focus on the sources of contaminants or impairments.

Guevara said when streams are listed as having impairments, there might be permit implications when permits are reviewed, but the list itself is not a regulatory device.

“It is not an enforcement,” she said. “One of the reasons we wanted to do this study down to a finer resolution is to help LANL and ourselves to identify hot spots to help us know the priorities.”

That in turn helps focus clean up activities that are ongoing at the laboratory, she said.

The public comment period for the 2010-2112 Integrated List is now open for public comment through Feb. 16, 2010.

On the web: http://www.nmenv.state.nm.us/SWQB/303d-305b/2010-2012/Pajarito/index.html.