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State questions plans for waste dump

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By Roger Snodgrass

The New Mexico Environment Department is disappointed with its permittees at Los Alamos National Laboratory over a regulatory issue.

Nov. 20, James Bearzi, chief of the Hazardous Waste Bureau sent a “notice of disapproval” covering several aspects of a key report in the massive, ongoing cleanup project at the laboratory.

The letter was obtained by the Monitor Monday.

The notice of deficiency stops short of a notice of violation, which would entail penalties such as fines. DOE and LANL have until the end of the year to respond to a number of concerns expressed by Bearzi about “the absence of vital information (e.g. groundwater data)” and other matters the department finds lacking in the report.

“We have a fairly aggressive plan that has been approved by the state to supplement the data they have,” said David Gregory, the DOE project director. “We recognize there are deficiencies. We’re well on the way to installing additional wells.”

The letter is addressed in tandem to the Department of Energy and Los Alamos National Laboratory, who are jointly responsible for fulfilling the requirements of the Consent Order that has governed cleanup activities at Los Alamos for the last three years.

Bearzi warned that the formal notification was on the way at a recent meeting of the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board on Nov. 19, when other questions were raised about the lab’s plans to close out its main hazardous waste disposal area, known as Area G.

The citizen’s board, chartered to advise the Department of Energy on a broad range of environmental matters such as these, called for an independent peer review of the remediation plans at Area G.

The lab’s analysis and recommendations were detailed in a report filed promptly in September 2008, taking up the difficult problem of remediating one of the laboratory’s most complex disposal sites, the final task in the long list of cleanup jobs.

Among several alternatives discussed, the lab recommended an engineered covering for Area G with a design optimized for erosion control, but with minimal excavation involving only one waste pit.

By contrast, the report includes an analysis of a total excavation of the waste from the 32 pits, 193 shafts and four trenches and surrounding areas. This alternative, the report states, “could take up to 30 years to complete.” The costs have been estimated in the billions.

NMED’s primary complaint about the Area G proposal is that the characterization of groundwater conditions in the vicinity of Area G is incomplete, despite specific instructions dating back at least a year calling for reliable groundwater data.

In a letter on Dec. 7, 2007 NMED stated that an accelerated well-drilling program would be required to provide that information and meet the milestones of the consent order. Five deep wells, reaching into the regional aquifer, were prescribed by the department were supposed to have been completed, the first two by the end of March 2008 and the last one by July 31, 2008.

“To date these wells have not been installed,” Bearzi wrote, and without them and other deficiencies cited in the report, NMED is unable to conduct more than a preliminary review of the recommendation.

At the citizen’s advisory board meeting, Chairman J.D. Cambell said the purpose of the board’s recommendation was to bring in an outside team of experts to help build a consensus on the appropriate remedy.

“Let’s get public confidence in what’s being done,” he said.

The recommendation identifies the DOE Office of Groundwater and Soil Remediation as having the authority to assemble an appropriate review team and states that the director of that office, Vincent Adams has offered to arrange such a review, if requested by LANL.