LANL responds to NAS recommendations

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – Paul Huber, who heads the groundwater program at the lab, condensed his presentation on “actions in response” to the recommendations to the short amount of time that remained at the end of a Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board meeting Wednesday at Santa Fe Community College.Huber reminded the board and members of the public in attendance that the NAS study was requested by the Department of Energy and said it was timely, fully supported and welcomed by the lab.The report arrived, he added, as the laboratory was finishing the part of the program aimed at characterizing the complex groundwater situation on the Pajarito Plateau and beginning the next phase with its emphasis on long-term monitoring. “The 17 recommendations were not inconsistent with what any program would have had to deal with,” he said.Although the NAS committee has no continuing role and has been disbanded, LANL has produced a formal white paper for purposes of internal planning and reporting.The NAS report’s summary expressed four overarching findings about LANL’s groundwater protection program. 

• NAS called for additional work in geochemistry to better understand how contaminates move within the hydrogeological system of the land formations under and around the laboratory. 

• The committee suggested the laboratory find better ways to demonstrate its considerable knowledge of potential contaminant threats, specifically calling for a fuller accounting between what contaminants have gone into the system and how much has been identified, a system known as “mass balance.”

• They said the groundwater program “was proceeding in the face of considerable uncertainty,” including uncertainties in measurements and they thought those uncertainties should be reduced.

• And finally, they questioned the fact that relatively few of LANL’s groundwater protection papers were peer-reviewed, a fact they felt may have contributed to public concerns.

Huber’s presentation was based on the white paper. Rather than summarizing the relationship between the overarching issues and LANL’s response, LANL’s responses were directed at the 17 individual recommendations, organized in somewhat different categories that he said were more consistent with the environmental program’s ongoing task, which is the cleanup work under supervision of state and federal regulators.One of the five areas, termed “quality program application,” referred to “addressing drilling fluid impacts,” which has been and continues to be a bone of contention between the lab and the public critics that led to the NAS assessment.NAS summarized the issue: “Many if not all of the wells drilled into the regional aquifer under the Hydrogeologic Workplan appear to be compromised in their ability to produce water samples that are representative of ambient groundwater for the purpose of monitoring.”“Certainly the drilling fluids have been the premier issue,” Huber acknowledged in his presentation.The drilling fluids, a by-product of the method used for drilling most of the characterization wells, have been blamed for masking some of the contaminants, including radioactive materials, that the monitoring program was intended to identify.A draft recommendation discussed at the NNMAC meeting Wednesday was directly related to reworking a regional well. That well, R-22, is positioned to monitor contaminants down slope from Area G, one of the main potential sources of contaminants in the complex. That the citizens advisory board saw the need for such a recommendation, suggested that the issue has yet to be resolved.NNMCAB chair J.D. Campbell said after the meeting that he was pleased by the positive response from the lab and DOE about revisiting the plan.James Bearzi, chief of the hazardous waste bureau, who is in charge of overseeing laboratory cleanup on behalf of the state, said that although his office had approved the lab’s revised workplan for upgrading the R-22 regional well, that the state would revisit their examination of the plan.Laboratory officials also announced preliminary plans for beginning a series of quarterly groundwater workshops next month that will feature technical discussions about the groundwater issues.