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Players dispute script for mock emergency

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By Roger Snodgrass

New Mexico Environment Secretary Ron Curry announced Wednesday his continued support for a specific emergency preparedness exercise set in Los  Alamos, despite recent complaints by Los Alamos National Laboratory that the scenario is “unrealistic.”A planning process going back to late 2006 has been developing a scenario that included a “radiological release to the atmosphere from an accidental detonation of un-surveyed underground explosives by excavating contractors at LANL’s Material Area B,” known as MDA B.The old dump, located on the edge of a mesa on DP Road across  from the Monitor office, has been re-fenced and prepared for a major excavation project, although there has been very little movement in the last several months.Curry sent a letter to LANL Director Michael Anastasio and Los Alamos Site Office Manager Donald Winchell Wednesday expressing “grave concerns” about current disagreements in the planning process.A spokesman for the laboratory downplayed Curry’s reaction.“We’re committed to continuing to work closely to develop an exercise that works for everyone and effectively tests everyone’s systems,” said Kevin Roark of LANL’s Communications Office Thursday, reading an approved statement.The emergency preparedness exercise is meant to test plans against actual coordinated activity by a wide range of northern New Mexico emergency managers, responders and several levels of government agencies. Participants are supposed to include LANL, four counties, eight northern pueblos and the Jicarilla Apache Nation. Hospitals, school systems, community groups and the media will also be incorporated into the exercise. “We agree that testing our emergency response systems alongside the emergency response systems in the region, is a very important thing to do,” Roark said. “Equally important, however, is that the scenario for an emergency exercise be technically credible; otherwise, the exercise yields results that are as unrealistic as the scenario.”James Bearzi, the state’s hazardous waste bureau chief dismissed the laboratory’s objections.“The scenario is something that is unexpected,” he said. “There is a release and it drifts over Los Alamos, Santa Fe and Rio Arriba County and it comes from a site that is not within the laboratory. They’ve told me an explosion by means of excavating an unknown thing can’t happen. You can’t have a release that would drift that far.”Bearzi said the point was to have an exercise that went beyond normal expectations.According to a fact sheet prepared for remediating MDA B, the 60-year-old dump may contain hazardous chemicals. A report about a fire that occurred at the site in 1948 said several cartons of waste caused minor explosions, and on one occasion, a cloud of pink gas arose from the debris.The laboratory’s remediation project describes the wastes as a big mixture, “primarily radioactively contaminated wastes and debris, and limited liquid chemical waste; however, a formal waste inventory was not maintained,” according to a fact sheet on the lab’s website.Curry’s letter states that LANL threatened to withdraw from the exercise and that an alternative scenario suggested by the lab – a fire at the LANL Tritium Facility – was presented very late in the process, at a March 4 meeting.Philmont Taylor, Los Alamos County emergency management coordinator, said he preferred the scenario that has been under development for the last year-and-a-half, even if it needed some further tweaking.“The reason we wanted it outside the normal fence line is so that the county has a higher stake,” he said. “The county is responsible for its citizens, residents and visitors, and this scenario will more accurately capture that.”The state’s objection to the alternative scenario, inside the fence at LANL, stems from bad feelings going back to the Cerro Grande Fire in May 2000.LANL’s response at that time, Curry wrote, “was to ‘lock the gates,’ retreat to its own emergency operations center and conduct very little communication with the outside world, at least for the first few days of the emergency.”Bearzi said that the last item in the current planning schedule calls for a table-top exercise next month, in which the major players act out their roles in the emergency scenario as it is currently planned.