LANL makes strides in cleaning runoff

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Water > Engineer urges long-term budget commitment

By Arin McKenna

Engineer Erin English, with Biohabitats, Inc., a firm representing the Communities for Clean Water (CCW), gave the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities a progress report on Los Alamos National Laboratory’s efforts at storm water management.

English spoke highly of the LANL stormwater team.

“We’ve actually ended up in quite a collaborative process and have found that the LANL folks have gone far above what they had committed to doing as a result of that lawsuit, and have really looked to us for some assistance in how to manage that storm water, not only in conventional ways but perhaps in ways that give them a little more flexibility that are rooting in green infrastructure grounds,” English said.

English believes LANL’s budget for compliance with the stormwater mitigation is approximately $10 million.

The core members of CCW are Amigos Bravos, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Honor our Pueblo Existence and the New Mexico Acequia Association, with several other groups also participating.

CCW sued LANL over their stormwater discharge permit in 2010 because of the high levels of pollutants running into the Rio Grande. CCW won that settlement, and was granted collaboration time with LANL’s stormwater team and given funding to hire technical experts. Biohabitats was hired to represent CCW.

The EPA has identified 450 sites for runoff management, with 63 of those identified as high priority. The main pollutants are not radioactive materials but PCBs and metals.

“LANL has installed an extraordinary number of control measures and engineered controls all over the place up there,” English said. “In fact, they’re having trouble collecting data at many of these sites, because they’re just not flowing; which means they’re not discharging water any more.

“They might discharge it in a very large event, but, generally speaking, they’ve been pretty successful through basic stuff like re-vegetation, mulching, berms, swales, that type of work to actually hold water on the site and reduce the amount of water flowing downstream. So that alone is a huge help and actually goes a long way toward managing storm water.”

Biohabitats is also suggesting ways for LANL to use low-impact storm water management, an innovative system of handling storm water based on nature’s principals. It stresses managing rainfall close to the source instead of further downstream by using decentralized, micro-style controls and mimicking the original hydrology of the site to filter, treat and slow the water.

Low-impact systems also have the advantage of being less expensive to install and easier to maintain.

“We recommended looking at the whole site, the TA-3 and upper Sandia watershed as a whole,” English said. “We looked at ways to contain sediment, because that’s what most of the PCBs and metals are hitchhiking on. We’re looking at how to protect contaminated soils and soil regeneration and restoration.

“We’re looking at ways to maintain these systems to remove contaminants and then to design for the long haul, because if they don’t clean up these sources, this is it. This is how this is being managed over time, so we wanted to be sure this was being looked at in the very long-term.”

English reported that LANL needs to find ways to achieve total retention of stormwater runoff and to filter PCBs and metals from the soil, but she also noted that LANL’s individual permit compliance schedule is quite robust.

English stressed the need for sustained efforts in the future.

“It’s going to take, over time, consistent funding to install these structures and continue to maintain and operate and sample them,” English said. “So maintaining funding for that on a federal level is very important, because this is the stopgap to pure removal.

“The 450 sites covered in this are so far-flung that I’m not sure removal will ever occur. So we’re looking at natural ways to manage their water and to keep that water from flowing downhill.”