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George Rael, the assistant manager for environmental programs at the NNSA Los Alamos Site Office, admitted to the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board Thursday what a fair amount of people already surmised.
“It’s not possible for DOE to meet the Consent Order in 2015,” Rael told the group assembled for the meeting at the Cities of Gold Hotel Conference Center.
Rael said budget cuts, technical challenges and a shift in priorities have caused the lack of progress on cleanup.
The New Mexico Environment Department, however, said it was not changing the deadline.
“This deadline provides the state with the leverage it needs to get the job done,” said NMED general counsel Ryan Flynn. “We know the lab has been underfunded. If we start moving back the deadline, it would allow appropriators to continue to underfund.”
The DOE, NNSA and LANL officials along with the NMED have come up with a framework agreement that would speed up the removal of thousands of drums of radioactive waste that have been sitting on lab property for decades.
“We are going to wait and see before we consider negotiating the Consent Order,” said Jim Davis, the resource protection division director for NMED. “We need evidence that this framework agreement is working.”
Here are highlights of the agreement:
• DOE/NNSA commits to continue to accelerate the rate of removal of above ground transuranic waste (TRU) at TA-54, Area G, and to focus its efforts to achieve disposition of this TRU waste at the earliest feasible time. Over the last year, DOE/NNSA has accelerated the pace of TRU shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and agrees with New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez that this continues to be the imperative priority at LANL.
• DOE/NNSA commits to the continued protection of groundwater and drinking water.
• DOE/NNSA and NMED agree that in order to achieve the most rapid progress feasible in completing the highest priority activities at the laboratory, planning, characterization and implementation activities for all remediation actions must be carried out in a cost effective and efficient way that provides full protection of human health and the environment and takes advantage of lessons learned both from previous work performed at the site and nationally.
• NMED commits to follow pertinent EPA guidance except where such guidance is not supported by sound science.
• DOE/NNSA and NMED agree to collaborative regular, periodic reviews of environmental remediation and clean-up practices at the laboratory with an eye toward utilizing sound science and protecting the public interest. DOE/NNSA and NMED also will commit to employ an Annual Planning Process, in order to assess and to refocus the environmental remediation and clean-up work at the laboratory to ensure alignment with the Governor’s priorities, consider input from the public, and find efficiencies that maximize the use of available federal funds.
• DOE/NNSA and NMED recognize the annual need to prioritize and dedicate available funding to the Governor’s highest environmental priorities and recognize that this will require that some lower priority cleanup work cannot be completed (under current budget conditions) as currently scheduled in the Consent Order. DOE/NNSA and NMED will continue to re-evaluate the sequencing of, and if possible, accelerate, cleanup activities, as the work progresses and as the funding situation changes.
• In order to meet Gov. Martinez’s request that DOE/NNSA and NMED allocate sufficient funding to accelerate the removal of above ground TRU inventory and continue DOE’s stewardship of water resources at LANL, NMED will consider DOE/NNSA’s requests for necessary extensions of near term milestones and, in doing so, will consider Congressional funding limitations.
• In the interest of transparency, DOE/NNSA and NMED commit to apprise the public of progress in connection with their re-alignment process. DOE/NNSA and NMED also commit to seek input from the public to inform the annual planning process.
The special meeting was called to review the new cleanup plan for the so-called transuranic, or TRU waste, that has been dumped on the site for years. Much of the waste is contaminated trash like clothing and gloves, lab officials say.
While it is not considered high level radioactive material, it can be highly active and must be processed, handled and shipped carefully. Officials estimate it will take nearly 600 shipments to WIPP to clear the site.
Last year, a record 171 shipments were made.
As part of the speedup agreement announced by Environment Secretary David Martin, 3,706 cubic meters of legacy waste will be removed by June 30, 2014. Lab officials also agreed to come up with a new schedule for cleanup of other legacy waste at the site, including 33 underground waste storage shafts.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: More on the TRU-waste cleanup in future editions of the Los Alamos Monitor.