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Los Alamos County Councilor Ralph Phelps added another point of influence to his regional activities when he became chair of the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board (NNMCAB) in October 2009.
Previously vice chair of the advisory group, Phelps succeeded J.D. Campbell, a civil engineer from Taos who remains on the board through April.
The board’s role under a formal federal charter is to serve as an intermediary between the public and people who make decisions at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The board covers a wide range of issues related to waste storage, the environment, court-ordered cleanup programs and long-term remediation.
Phelps’ spent most of his career in the nuclear power industry. His experience includes work at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station where he helped bring two units from construction through reliable operation. A project engineer and project manager who approaches problems with a logical focus, Phelps has already defined some of the challenges ahead.
“We have a couple of major issues coming up, related to the corrective measures at MDA-G,” he said. Material Disposal Area-G is the laboratory’s major waste depository, and closing it out will be the final project in the ongoing comprehensive cleanup program at the laboratory.
“They are getting to the point where they need to make long term plans,” Phelps said. “A big factor has to do with resolving groundwater issues. They still have a couple of wells they need to drill, which I think they are going to get done in 2010, to convince the New Mexico Environment Department they understand what’s going on.”
NNMCAB has worked closely on the groundwater issues at the laboratory. As chairman of the waste management committee, Phelps helped organize a major workshop on the final cleanup at MDA-G.
“We’re probably due for more public events,” he said, noting that the current outreach effort for another cleanup project, at Material Disposal Area B along DP Road, was another effort recommended by the advisory board last year.
One of Phelps first tasks will be to begin recruiting new board members. The board is authorized to have 26, but is currently about 10 members short.
“Folks that have come to the meetings have been frustrated that we don’t do more and produce more products,” he said.
His response is to try to provide more participation.
“We need to have more participatory meetings, more comment, more time for members to bring up topics of interest to them, and at the same time, less emphasis on technical conversation,” he said. “We’re trying to get a broader involvement by way of a more diverse group of people on the board.”
“We are especially trying to recruit members from the four accord pueblos and women. We seem to have a lot of men interested, but we need women and young people,” said Menice B. Santistevan, the executive director of NNMCAB. “We’d be happy to talk to anyone who is interested and has time.”
As guidance came down from headquarters early in the Obama Administration, procedural issues discussed in CAB meetings early last year had to do with assuring more participation by minorities, having shorter meetings and having a less technical emphasis in the meetings.
“There is a diversity of views on that,” Phelps said. “Some folks that think we can get by with shorter meetings and less routine administrative discussions; other people want the kind of presentations that would involve a little longer meeting….We keep looking at it.”
The lab’s environmental stewardship program, with staying power provided by a formal consent order with the state and a big boost of stimulus funding, has a great deal of work to do over the next five years.
“People look at the emotional issues around environmental work and sometimes they do not understand the risks and complexity; they raise questions,” Phelps said, after he had been on the board for a few years. “The CAB remembers the questions and makes sure the lab is listening.”
Phelps started as a board member after answering an ad in the newspaper. He was chairman of the Los Alamos County Board of Public Utilities and was selected to the county council in January 2009 to fill a vacancy through the end of this year. He has announced as a Republican candidate for council in the June primary.
More information on the NNMCAB is available at www.nnmcab.org/.