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State may fine lab for faulty well

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By Roger Snodgrass

The New Mexico Environment Department issued a notice to lab managers Friday afternoon for a violation of the comprehensive cleanup agreement.

NMED proposes a penalty of $1.87 million against the Department of Energy and Los Alamos National Security, LLC, for failing to plug and abandon a groundwater monitoring well in Mortandad Canyon.

In the announcement Friday, NMED said the well is known to have elevated levels of laboratory-related contaminants – chromium, perchlorate, nitrate and tritium – that threaten the water system.

“While local water supplies are regularly tested and are safe, I’m troubled with the lab’s failure to comply with the department’s directives,” said Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry in a prepared statement. “Those directives include protecting the regional aquifer from this leaking well.”

Fred DeSousa, a spokesperson for the laboratory’s environmental program said Friday that the lab’s top priority is to keep the drinking water safe.

“It's important to remember, and the state agrees, that the drinking water is safe,” he said. “Our data tells us the water is leaking from one pocket in the ground to another pocket, but it's still 400 feet above the water supply.”

There are three county drinking water wells located within a mile of the Mortandad Canyon well, according to a communiqué from the county.

Officials at the Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities said that local drinking water quality remains high.

“In 2007, LANL and NMED agreed that a Mortandad Canyon well (MCOBT-4.4) would be plugged and abandoned within the terms of LANL’s Consent Order.  Because this work has not yet occurred, NMED announced their enforcement action yesterday involving a fine to LANL of $1.87 million,” said Utilities Manager John Arrowsmith. “There are three county drinking water wells located within a mile of the Mortandad Canyon well. These wells, which are tested regularly, continue to produce drinking water that meets all state and federal drinking water standards and is safe to drink.”  

“We look forward to working together with LANL and NMED to continue to provide safe drinking water to our customers and to protect the regional aquifer,” Arrowsmith said.

Under the Consent Order, that governs the cleanup process, LANL submitted a work plan to plug and abandon well MCOBT-4.4 on Oct. 31, 2007 to prevent contaminated groundwater from leaking into the aquifer. NMED approved the work plan on Dec. 7, 2007, and required that the work be properly completed by June 30, 2008.

NMED said DOE and LANS blamed “resource limitations,” for not having finished the job.

 “We’ve been very patient trying to get this well taken care of properly,” NMED Deputy Secretary Jon Goldstein said Friday. “It’s an improperly completed well. When you don’t complete a well properly it can act as a way for water that’s up in the alluvium to get down into the aquifer.”

The department said the action marked the fifth major violation of the order that has resulted in enforcement. The penalty could be as high as $7 million.

“We don't like missing our commitments to the state. We look forward to working with them on getting this resolved,” DeSousa said.

Goldstein said the fine would depend on the lab’s response. “They can simply comply, or if they would rather, they can enter into negotiations.”

Desousa said the work is scheduled for June. "As far as an appeal, it's too early to say if that's the route we'll take,” he said.