Material Disposal Area-B activity quickens

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A little more plutonium than expected, no sign of explosive containers

By Roger Snodgrass

A tree-eating machine devoured part of the landscape on the south side of DP Road in recent days. Next week, a layer of the surface cover will be peeled back to get a little closer to the mysteries that are buried in a 65-year-old hazardous dump.

The cleanup of the six-acre waste site known as Material Disposal Area B (MDA-B) is moving again, although the major excavation is now planned for early summer.

The trees had to be removed because they would be within the footprint of the containment buildings or tie-downs where the hazardous material removal will take place.

“We moved the start date out a bit, but we’re still on track to meet the NMED (New Mexico Environment Department) consent order requirement of Dec. 31,” said Gordon Dover, deputy director of the stimulus environmental activities for Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The agreement between Los Alamos National Laboratory and the state regulators lays out the guidelines and deadlines for a comprehensive environmental cleanup of the site. Although the project has been in gear since 2006, time is getting shorter. LANL has to do the clean up before the end of the year, with paper work to follow.

Dover said the project has recently taken delivery of the first two metal buildings that will be moved around to enclose the excavation areas.  These two buildings sit on large beams at each end. A wheel is attached that can be raised or lowered, so the structures can be dragged from place to place within the site.

“We will have two moveable ones and some fixed enclosures,” Dover said, describing the other buildings as ‘robust Quonset huts.’

“They’re all equipped with fire protection and air filtration,” he said. “All will meet the same requirements, just with different designs that will allow us to fit them all on the site.”

In recent months, the project has been probing below the surface to get a better idea what to expect down there.

One result was that they found two sections of the project that were undisturbed, which is why the excavation doesn’t have to start in February.

“On the rest, we found the contamination in the ranges we expected,” Dover said. “Historically, we expected 200 grams of plutonium for the whole 25,000 cubic yards of the landfill,” Dover said. “It now appears to be a little higher, but with the controls we have in place and the ventilation, we’ll manage that. What we’re concerned about is any leakage from the buildings (that enclose the excavation), but we’ll catch that with the air sampling coverage that we beefed up last year.”

During the deep probing exercise, there were no signs of the oxidized ether containers that still pose an explosive hazard at the site.

“We didn’t have any issues there,” Dover said, adding that the project would be employing a robotic excavator in some areas.

Ultimately the parcel is supposed to be cleaned up to residential standards and turned over to the county government.

The project managers plan to give the public a chance to go inside one of the excavation buildings after it’s set up and before it’s in operation. When excavation begins, visitors would have to wear protective clothing and respirators.

As part of the communication program, the project has open office hours 1-3 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday at 200 DP Rd. Residents and people in the vicinity of the cleanup can come by and direct questions to Patti Jones and other project officials. Visitors may need to knock or call 665-4897, because the doors are secured with a badge-reader.

 “When we’re done, we’ll restore the area, make sure there are proper storm water controls in place,” Dover said. “The fence will probably come down.”