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Townsite cleanup targets contaminants

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By Roger Snodgrass

Like carpet cleaners for hazardous soils, Los Alamos National Laboratory will be doing what officials hope will be the final spot work in the Upper Los Alamos Canyon area.

Although a number of residences in the townsite were included in the scope of the project, the contaminated sites designated for remediation so far are all on county or Department of Energy property.

Environmental sampling work began last fall on a swatch of land within and along Los Alamos Canyon from DP Road in the east to the Los Alamos Research Park, including locations south of Central Avenue and near Ashley Pond.

These are largely areas of concern and solid waste management units associated with operations from the era of Manhattan Project.

Becky Coel-Roback, project leader for the townsites project, said a formal Investigations Report was delivered on schedule June 1 and that phase two will involve soil removal at nine of the contaminated sites and some additional sampling on 13 other sites in order to close them out.

“We are really hoping that this will be a final thing,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “Without a crystal ball there is no way to know for sure.”

She emphasized that the recommendations contained in the Investigations Report were contingent on approval by the New Mexico Environment Department under the comprehensive environmental cleanup agreement.

Overall, a laboratory announcement stated, more than 700 soil samples were collected at 47 sites for the investigation.

The lab has requested that 25 of those sites be certified for completion. Of the remaining 22 sites, the extent of the contamination has not been fully defined, but is well enough defined on nine of the sites to warrant removal actions.

The contaminants to be removed include plutonium, arsenic, lead and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), a pollutant chemical compound.

“The work will range from people with shovels to some heavier equipment,” Coel-Roback said. In some cases people can vacuum pieces of dirt with backpack equipment and in other cases the vacuum equipment will be heavier.

One of the more significant points of cleanup will take place on Department of Energy property on the south-facing slope of Los Alamos Canyon behind the Timber Ridge subdivision.

Tests near that area found PCBs thought to have come from a machine shop septic tank that was discharged into the canyon from the former Technical Area 1. Contaminants at higher levels than allowed for recreational use were found close to Deadman’s Trail, which was posted and closed last month in preparation for the cleanup work.

“They will be starting work in the PCB area after the monsoon,” said Fred Desousa, a laboratory spokesperson. “For lots of reasons, they don’t like to do cleanup until after the rains.”

Coel-Roback said members of the public who attended an informational meeting last week expressed surprise that the investigation was already finished on their properties.

“We were pretty stealthy,” she said. “We were pretty quick.”

Property owner approvals are required for any access or work on private property.

“We finished when we planned to be finished,” said Coel-Roback. “We just didn’t start when we planned to start,” because of procurement and funding delays.

A copy of the full 1,000-page-plus investigations report, 82.6 megabytes, is available on a lab website, http://www.lanl.gov/environment/cleanup/docs/LA-UR-09-3325.pdf and the data will be also be available via the RACER environmental monitoring tool, http://www.racernm.com/.