Laboratory fights against open burning ban

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Two weeks of permit hearings on tap

By Roger Snodgrass

When Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Hazardous Waste permit comes up for a public hearing, starting April 5, one issue certain to be contested has to do with the laboratory’s ability to conduct non-nuclear explosions.

The laboratory has appealed the New Mexico Environment Department’s decision to remove open burning from the renewal permit, which lab officials believe will impact a number of current non-nuclear explosive capabilities, including defensive training for roadside bomb units.

In an interview Thursday from the airport in Omaha Neb., William S. Rees, Jr., the head of the laboratory’s global security directorate said there are many aspects of the laboratory’s mission that are not about nuclear weapons.

“The global security program is what I’m in charge of,” he said. “It’s just vital that we can continue to do some of that work.”

Rees cited examples of the laboratory’s open burning program that he said have had major benefits to the country and to large numbers of individuals.

One was the response to the foiled attempt by a terrorist to use liquid bombs to blow up British and American passenger jets and resulted in a brief, but onerous, total embargo on carrying liquids aboard airliners.

The relaxation of that restriction to the 3:1:1 rule, where smaller amounts could be carried aboard, Rees said, was based on experiments at the laboratory that determined the quantity of liquids that could be safely allowed.

“The kind of work at the laboratory to develop that policy could not have been developed if the open burn element of that policy were not allowed,” he said.

Another example has to do with a laboratory program that trains the trainers who teach the improvisational explosive device (IED) teams how to locate, defuse or render safe the IEDs that have killed and wounded Americans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Los Alamos has been selected by a variety of different military branches, Rees said, to train the trainers because of the depth of experience of the laboratory scientists in this area and the quality of the training has been found to be high and consistent.

A formal fact sheet prepared by NMED defines open burning as “the burning of any materials that produce air contaminants that are directly emitted into the air without first passing through a stack or chimney from an enclosed chamber.”

The department required the laboratory to provide a risk assessment analyzing the human health and environmental risks, which found no adverse risks to residential or industrial populations. There were, however, some elevated dioxin contamination, as well as some elevated risks in the air modeling for individuals in close proximity to the burn units.

The department fact sheet noted that 1,400 individual members of the public registered opposition to open burning because it caused uncontrolled releases into the atmosphere. NMED reported that among their objections opponents cited risks to wildlife and public health.

During the pre-hearing negotiations about the permit, non-governmental organizations, including nuclear watchdog groups advocated closure of the open burning units, arguing for replacing current facilities with confined burn facilities.

“We agree on the vast majority of the aspects of the permit,” LANL spokesman Fred de Sousa said.

Another disagreement, he said, has to do with the department’s insistence that LANL’s managers, Los Alamos National Security, LLC, post financial guarantees for closure and post-closure costs for some of the permitted facilities.

“We’ll be filing some testimony in advance on that,” he said. “Bottom line is that no other federal facility is required to post financial assurance.”

The hearings, another step in renewing the laboratory’s 10-year permit begin April 5 and run through April 16 at the Santa Fe Community College Jemez Room, with additional hearings to be arranged in Pojoaque, Española and Los Alamos during that time.