The ‘relationship’: Council ponders life with lab

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By Roger Snodgrass

The question of how the county should relate to Los Alamos National Laboratory got an airing at Tuesday’s county council meeting.

Council chair Jim Hall called it a discussion subject. He said he didn’t expect a motion to come out of it, and he was right. Apart from a few expressions of agreement with the previous speaker, the subject inspired nearly as many opinions from the council and public as there were commentators.

Councilor Nona Bowman had requested an extended hearing two months earlier during a March 4 council debate. The issue at that time was a letter the council was about to submit to the Department of Energy in response to a plan to transform the nuclear weapons complex.

After last year’s turmoil during the budget process and signs that the laboratory’s future may be entering a choppy phase, Bowman thought a brief statement in the letter about the laboratory’s economic impact on the town was “too vague.”

Introducing the topic again Tuesday, she said she had been told by LANL employees who had raised concerns about “broadening the base” of the laboratory that they would not be able to speak to the council, because “they’re not supposed to talk to elected officials.”

Among Bowman’s suggestions was an idea to increase the clout of congressional supporters of the laboratory by enlarging the lab’s geographic influence. That could be realized by broadening the consortium of universities with whom the laboratory is most closely allied to the six nearest states, she suggested, along with current partnerships with the research universities of New Mexico. She thinks the alignment could transform northern New Mexico’s laboratory into an even more prominent laboratory of the Southwest.

“We need to remember that LANL is a national laboratory, not a New Mexico lab or a southwestern lab,” said Council Vice Chair Robert Gibson, responding later in the meeting. “Diversification of the laboratory is very important, but diversification outside the laboratory is far more in our realm.”

Bowman’s description of what she considered to be the New Mexico Environment Department’s excessive regulatory pressures on the laboratory’s cleanup process also drew a sharp counterpoint from Councilor Michael Wheeler.

“To criticize NMED is not the way to garner the support of the state,” he said.

Councilor Ken Milder saw some good in Bowman’s suggestions, but awaited more details.

“In my limited experience dealing with Congress or the state, you have to be very specific,” he said.

Several residents offered a variety of perspectives. One common theme involved leveraging the laboratory’s scientific expertise more emphatically in the area of alternative energy, especially toward solving roadblocks to nuclear power.

“We’ve got all the solutions to all those problems,” said Bob Villareal.

Manuel Baca, Democratic candidate for council, said it was important to keep the lab going, but to change it as well. He proposed moving away from weapons and more into energy, but said he doubted the laboratory could be counted on for help.

“I don’t really feel they are looking out for the good of the county,” he said.

Kerry Burns, a lab retiree who lives in the town site, provided a narrative list of ways that the lab was too poorly structured “to interact with the community in terms of industrial development.”

Problems included non-competitive charges for personnel, redundant billing for unnecessary classified services and obstacles to unclassified information.

In a “Council Corner” column in the Monitor published Sunday, Bowman laid out a set of concerns about the laboratory’s mission along with suggestions for how to communicate them to the congressional delegation.

She said her ideas were based on her experience during the five-and-a-half years she had been in office with ongoing input from the community. She added that her attempts to speak out have been frustrated.

“I have tried to do that, but my efforts have been constrained to minority reports that were not always well received and even that avenue has been closed since the county council election (in 2006),” she wrote. “I have never seen a community so concerned about its future for so long to behave so passively.”

During the meeting councilors West and Wheeler emphasized ongoing regional partnerships and diversification efforts by the council.

Read more about county events, meetings and projects online at www.lac-nm.us.