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Legacy waste lingers amid cleanup efforts

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Lab: Priorities shift as budget squeeze tightens

By John Severance

(Second of a two-part series)

For more than 65 years, research, development and testing activities related to nuclear arms production have taken place at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

During that time, there have been releases of contaminants to the environment at various locations across the laboratory. In fact, back in the early days, nuclear waste was just thrown into the canyon.

In 2005, a series of community groups reached agreement with LANL to address investigation and cleanup of legacy contamination.

Last week, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary David Martin made a presentation concerning the status of the Consent Order, which laid out the timeline for lab cleanup.

He spent a fair amount of time talking about contamination at the various release sites.

• Over 2,100 potential release sites were identified during a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Facility Assessment conducted by EPA in the early 1990s.
• Over 1,450 of these sites are currently listed on LANL’s RCRA Permit as Solid Waste Management Units and Areas of Concern that require either investigation to determine the presence and extent of contamination or cleanup to protect human health and the environment. Contamination has been identified in the shallow subsurface at numerous industrial and legacy disposal sites across the laboratory.
• Volatile organic compounds and tritium have been detected in the vapor phase in the subsurface beneath some disposal sites at the laboratory.  Examples of these sites include Material Disposal Areas T, C, G, and L at technical areas 21, 50 and 54, respectively.

Contamination in groundwater from LANL has been detected in the regional aquifer at several locations across the laboratory.

So what contaminants have been detected in the groundwater?

Martin said these include:
• Explosive compounds detected in the regional aquifer and in saturated zones perched above the regional aquifer at Technical Area 16.
• Chromium contamination in the regional aquifer beneath Mortandad and Sandia Canyons,
• Perchlorate detected in the regional aquifer beneath Los Alamos and Pueblo Canyons, and volatile organic compounds in the regional aquifer beneath portions of Pajarito Canyon.
• Tritium is present in the regional aquifer at various locations beneath the laboratory.

Martin said groundwater protection and monitoring remain a top concern for NMED. He said last week that detection monitoring continues on a facility-wide basis and that monitoring in Sandia and Mortandad Canyon is focused on confirming that the chromium plume is not migrating off-site and that  public water supply wells are protected.

“Monitoring of areas beneath the laboratory where contaminants are present is targeted based on the identified contaminants of concern and detection monitoring is conducted more frequently at major disposal sites and areas where major laboratory activities were historically conducted (TA-16, TA-21, TA-54),” Martin said.

Another big priority is the need to protect the Rio Grande water quality relative to the Buckman Direct Diversion Project in Santa Fe

“This is a Santa Fe and NMED concern,” Martin said. “NNSA has been directed to assess, given the predicted federal budget shortfalls, how it can maintain its groundwater and surface water monitoring and remediation commitments while accelerating TRU waste removal.”

The Consent Order says that cleanup must be done by 2015.

Although it has a long way to go and it faces funding issues, the lab has made some headway in its cleanup goals, Martin said.

Among the accomplishments:
• Completed initial investigation of approximately 90 percent of the previously uninvestigated legacy sites currently listed on LANL’s RCRA permit.
• NMED’s Hazardous Waste Bureau issued certificates of completion for investigation and cleanup for approximately 160 legacy sites.
• Completed corrective action at seven material disposal areas.
• Completed contaminant migration assessments in 12 canyons.
• The laboratory-wide groundwater monitoring network is over 90 percent complete.
• Discovered and close to completion of delineation of the Sandia-Mortandad Canyon chromium plume and demonstrated that public water supplies are safe.
• Engineering controls have been installed in Pueblo Canyon and Los Alamos Canyon to significantly reduce sediment transport to the Rio Grande during flood events.
• LANL submitted remedy evaluations in September 2011 for Material Disposal Areas G, H, and L at Technical Area 54.  NMED is currently reviewing the evaluations and will select final remedies for the sites in 2012.
Los Alamos County, meanwhile, also has some issues with LANL.

The cleanup of Material Disposal Area T, located in TA-21, is a top priority for the county.
Clean up costs for a 2.2-acre parcel of land located inside TA-21, known as Material Disposal Area (MDA) T at Los Alamos National Laboratory could be as high as $1 billion, according to the Department of Energy; although no accurate estimate can be given until a survey is completed.

Martin said NNSA will identify land transfer opportunities to the County of Los Alamos in the event MDA-T cannot be remediated to residential standards.

One of the last things Martin addressed was transparency. He credited the lab, DOE and NNSA for being a little more forthcoming with information. In the past, NMED levied a number of fines on the entities when they were in violation of various orders.

“NMED is committed to engage the public throughout this process by doing more than the bare minimum of what is legally required and plans to fully engage the public when there are noteworthy developments,” Martin said.

“NMED and LANL/DOE are beginning communicating with lawmakers, interested stakeholders and the general public about the current approach.”