Regulator won't reopen LANL cleanup deal

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By Roger Snodgrass

A townhall meeting with officials of the New Mexico Environment Department returned repeatedly to the subject of a landmark Consent Order and the possibility that Los Alamos National Laboratory may fail to meet its cleanup obligations.

Several dozen people turned out for the parley between the two camps and the public, including political leaders and a representative showing of professionals engaged in environmental issues.

“I don’t think we quite have you guys outnumbered, so that’s a good sign,” said Jon Goldstein, the department’s deputy secretary, as he surveyed the audience in Fuller Lodge Tuesday night.

Secretary Ron Curry opened the meeting by introducing his staff and recalling his personal relationship with the laboratory that goes back to when his father worked on the Manhattan Project.

The general topic of the meeting was the range of work the department does in Los Alamos.

A primary responsibility involves supervising the comprehensive environmental cleanup program under the terms of a court settlement known as the Consent Order. But the much broader responsibilities include regulating laboratory operations and how much and what kind of hazardous waste is generated, as well as such tasks as air and environmental monitoring, and inspecting food services in the cafeteria.

The germ of the meeting, however, had to do with “the money.”

A persistent budgetary concern was confirmed earlier in the month. A Department of Energy report revealed that milestones for finishing the environmental cleanup by 2015 might not be met because of funding shortfalls that have been apparent since the Consent Order was signed in 2005.

“We don’t buy that they don’t have the money,” said Hazardous Waste Bureau Chief James Bearzi, who heads the cleanup process for the department.

“Lack of funding is not an excuse,” Curry said, emphasizing the department’s refusal to renegotiate the order.

He appreciated the fact that the laboratory had requested the funding, but noted that the lab is getting less than what it asked for this year and next. He insisted that there would be no compromise and that penalties would be the consequence of default.

A question from the audience asked the following: If the cleanup process were fully funded, could more of it go into actual cleanup rather than into the characterization process in order to accomplish the job sooner?

“If you show us the money, our hearing becomes better,” Curry said, adding that full funding was not yet forthcoming.

A more pointed manifestation of the argument was raised by another question from the audience about a disagreement between the department and the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board (NNMCAB) relating to a letter written last month by board chair J.D. Campbell to the managers of the Los Alamos Site Office.

Because of the letter, Curry had said, NMED declined to participate in a forum arranged by the advisory board April 16.

In a recent e-mail to the Monitor, Campbell said the letter did not recommend renegotiating the Consent Order.

“We recommended that NMED, DOE and LANL work together to set near-term priorities and schedules within the Consent Order to obtain the data ee necessary to make future decisions,” Campbell wrote.

Fran Berting, a Los Alamos County Councilor and also vice chair of the citizens advisory board, told Curry that the letter was not intended to suggest renegotiations, but rather to have a short term reorganization of the priorities.

“Heaven forbid – we don’t want to renegotiate the whole Consent Order; that would be a slippery slope,” she said.

“This was and is a controversy,” Curry said. “I’m hoping some of the noise will go down.”

Curry and Campbell have agreed to meet in the near future to discuss the matter.

The public forum won’t be the last the community hears of NMED. The question of the laboratory’s hazardous waste permit and water issues related to Santa Fe will be coming up for public discussion and possible hearings.

In addition, the department plans a series of four “listening” sessions in the region to respond to questions and answer concerns about LANL’s impact on the environment.