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Regulators impose $960,000 fine

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Lab defends groundwater efforts

By Roger Snodgrass

A simmering disagreement between Los Alamos National Laboratory and its state environmental regulator erupted Thursday.

The dispute has boiled over because of issues related to protecting Santa Fe’s drinking water from the risk of laboratory pollution upstream.

The Santa Fe city and county governments have water rights from the San Juan-Chama Project and the Rio Grande by means of the Buckman Direct Diversion Project. The $216 million water treatment project is supposed to divert and clean water from the Rio Grande including the waters from storms and tributaries washing down from laboratory property.

Monday afternoon, in a letter from Hazardous Waste Bureau Chief James Bearzi, New Mexico Environment Department stipulated a $960,000 penalty against the laboratory for failure to comply with a consent order between the state and the laboratory and its federal managers.

That penalty, according to an announcement issued by the department Monday, started with a notice of intent to assess penalties in

September 2008 for failure to comply with the legal agreement. In January, the department assessed $291,000 in penalties for the first 117 days of non-compliance. In an announcement, the department said that LANL had not paid the fine or corrected that deficiency.

NMED has now assessed a fine of $3,000 for the subsequent 320 days, totaling $960,000.

“I am extremely disappointed that the laboratory would rather pay penalties or fight legal battles than do the right thing and install the monitoring system that the city, county and state have asked for repeatedly,” said New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry. “This is not about the money; it is about the laboratory being held accountable. Reliable groundwater and surface water monitoring networks are critical in determining whether or not hazardous pollution from Area G and other waste sites are reaching our precious groundwater and the Rio Grande. I share the grave concerns expressed by many New Mexicans over the environmental impacts of LANL’s legacy, especially on local water projects such as the Buckman Direct Diversion.”

He added that the penalty was a

“call to action for the lab to wake up, clean up and live up to the environmental promises it has made to New Mexico.”

A spokesperson for the laboratory emphasized points of agreement, but did not suggest a resolution to the disagreement.

“We thought we had agreement on how much data are needed to design that remediation,” said Fred DeSousa of the lab’s communications office in an e-mail response. “NMED approved a work plan describing that data in 2007. At NMED’s request and in good faith, we drilled new wells and added the data in reports submitted on time in 2008 and 2009.”

He responded that the laboratory provides “multiple gigabytes of data,” on monitoring radionuclides and that they were publicly available.

In an announcement late Monday, the Buckman Direct Diversion Board said they supported, “NMED’s call to action for Los Alamos National Laboratory to perform water quality monitoring.”

The board emphasized their commitment to “meet all safe drinking water standards and scientifically demonstrate that drinking water is safe with respect to LANL environmental pollution in order to improve customer confidence.”

The board stated that they, “must be certain that storm water runoff from LANL is properly managed and regulated to ensure contaminants are contained on LANL property and dod not reach the Rio Grande.”

Since 2005 NMED and LANL have been governed by Consent Order governing a program of environmental cleanup at the laboratory.

NMED officials have said the lab failed to comply in its plan for closing down its low waste repository, Area G, because the report did not include reliable groundwater data that the department had been calling for since the end of 2007.

In an e-mail Monday Independent groundwater watchdog Bob Gilkeson responded to the NMED and LANL dispute with a portion of criticism for both sides.

“NMED shares responsibility with LANL for an overall failure to implement wise groundwater protection practices,” he wrote.  “There is an immediate need for DOE Headquarters to schedule the public meetings with the “world class expert panel” that was promised to the citizens of New Mexico in February of 2009.”