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Lab disputes runoff water standard

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By Roger Snodgrass

A disagreement has arisen between Los Alamos National Laboratory and one of its water regulators.

The New Mexico Environment Department said this week they would ask the state Water Quality Control Commission to dismiss a petition from the Department of Energy and Los Alamos National Security LLC that appeals the department’s water quality standard for storm water runoff.

“First and foremost, we’re committed to making sure that our runoff is in compliance with the regulations,” laboratory spokesperson Kevin Roark said Friday. “Most importantly, we want to adhere to an accurate and fair method for determining the hardness or toxicity in water.”

The issue, as described in a press announcement by NMED, has to do with a discrepancy between standards set by the department for the laboratory’s water discharge permit and standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Administration, having to do with how “hard” the water flowing out of the laboratory is allowed to be.

Individuals may be aware of the difference between “hard” and “soft” water from experiences with how difficult it is to rinse soaps and shampoos while taking showers in “hard” water. Some homeowners in New Mexico and elsewhere install water-softening appliances in their homes in order to avoid scaling in water pipes and spigots and other inconveniences related to minerals in the water.

For water quality standards, hardness is a measure of the mineral content of the water – the higher the content, the harder the water.

NMED has proposed a higher standard than EPA for how hard the lab discharge can be. EPA issued its standards in a draft permit in January 2008.

A higher standard means lower mineral content for minerals such as cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, nickel, silver and zinc.

The department argues that storm water from the laboratory will carry effluent into the canyons that ultimately drain into the Rio Grande and that lower standards allowing higher concentrations of contaminants could pose a risk to downstream aquatic life.

“The department’s requirements for storm water discharges from LANL into nearby streams and rivers will protect aquatic life and New Mexico’s river ecosystems,” said New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry in the press release.

“The basic issue is that determining the hardness of water is not a simple thing, because it varies,” Roark said. “In fact it has tremendous variability depending on flow and direction.”

The state’s standards were issued conditionally on May 8 and LANL officials say they asked for and were invited to provide additional data in June, before the Water Quality Commission issued a decision supporting the state standards in July.

LANL appealed that decision, claiming the window for appeals started at that point, but NMED claims the 30-day appeals started in May and are no longer in order.

“We are engaged with NMED in technical discussions and hope that these continue to reach a resolution that’s mutually satisfactory,” Roark said.